What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are conditions that cause a person to spend most of their waking hours thinking and obsessing about food, weight, calories, and/or body image. These obsessions may cause them to binge eat, starve themselves, or binge and purge.

10-15% of all Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder. These illnesses can last anywhere from 5-15 years or more. The longer the duration of the illness, the greater chance of death or severe, irreversible medical consequences. Eating disorders are progressive and can result in serious mental and physical illness and/or death. (www.rockhillcommunications.com, 2000).

Individuals with eating disorders often become socially withdrawn and may chose to avoid any contact with friends and loved ones. They often feel inadequate and guilty because of their illness. They feel unworthy of love and will often become involved in destructive relationships.

One with an eating disorder will generally deny feelings until they hit a “rock bottom” so to speak. They have such a need to appear “perfect,” that it is not until this crisis that they even begin to admit that their behavior may be a problem they cannot control.

There are several forms of “eating disorders,” of course they all share the common link of having to do with the way one eats or doesn’t eat. The truth of the matter is that it’s not about the food at all. It’s an attempt to use food and weight to deal with emotional problems.

The link between eating disorders and substance abuse:

– 50% of individuals with eating disorders abuse alcohol and/or illicit drugs, compared to the 9% in the general population who use (CASA, 2004).
– Up to 35 % of individuals who use drugs/alcohol suffer from some type of eating disorder (CASA, 2004).

Anorexia Nervosa

Before 1983 little was known about Anorexia Nervosa. Although anorexia has been documented throughout history the media was virtually unaware until the death of Karen Carpenter in 1983. Her death brought eating disorder awareness to our attention for the first time.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the refusal to maintain the minimally accepted body weight, the intense fear of gaining weight, the obsessions of thinness, perfection, and often counting calories. Many times the person with anorexia will believe they are “fat” even though they are below “normal” body weight. However, that is not always the case. Many individuals with anorexia realize they are thin, some even recognize that they are too thin and don’t necessarily like it, yet these individuals are so intensely afraid to gain weight that their weight continues to plummet to an even more dangerously low weight.

As weight loss continues the cognitive functioning of the individual becomes impaired and they are no longer able to see things as clearly as they did before. Thoughts and beliefs become distorted. Their body image as well as the image of others becomes skewed. Their choices become compromised and their emotions harder to handle which increases the desire for the individual to engage in the disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is most commonly seen in teenage girls; however it also occurs in pre-teen girls, teenage boys, and adult women and men. People with anorexia are 15% below the “normal” weight for their size based on height. These individuals restrict, meaning they refrain from eating as long as possible. Many individuals simply restrict food altogether.

Much of the time they will play with their food, push it around the plate, feed it to the dog under the table, or chew food and spit it out in their napkin, amongst numerous other techniques they have discovered. Sometimes individuals with anorexia will restrict and then purge what little food they do take in. The idea is that the purging will compensate for the food they ate. However, this is not only ineffective but also a “myth.” There are many ways of purging; sometimes one will vomit after they eat, some will consume laxatives, diuretics (water pills) and some will workout excessively up to 6 or 8 hours a day.

Health Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa

Individuals struggling with anorexia have an absence of menstruation, a decrease in strength and muscle atrophy, loss of fatty tissue, low blood pressure, abnormally slow heart rate, a reduction in bone density, severe dehydration which can result in kidney failure, fainting, fatigue and overall weakness. Their skin can appear yellow, blotchy, and/or scaly. Facial hair grows in an attempt to provide “heat” for the starving body (lanugo).

Depression is very common in all eating disorders, but especially in anorexia. It is unclear as to whether or not the depression is one of the causes of anorexia or if it is a direct result of low body weight.

Anorexia nervosa is caused by many different elements in one’s life and therefore it is impossible for researchers to identify a specific “reason” one develops anorexia and others do not. This is often frustrating not only for the individual with anorexia but for their loved ones as well. It is because of the many dynamics that make up the disorder that treatment can rarely be “brief.” Unfortunately many individuals with anorexia refuse to believe that they are indeed in danger. Many simply believe that they are successful at their “diet” and simply want to be left alone. Many are in denial for a long time which makes treatment that much harder and lowers the survival rate.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is the eating disorder which is defined by food binges where one consumes large amounts of food or recurrent episodes of significant overeating. The eating behavior is then followed by remorse, and a sense of loss of control. The individual then uses various methods of purging or engages in periods of fasting to avoid weight gain. The main difference between anorexia and bulimia is that individuals with bulimia tend to be of a more “normal” weight or even a little heavier. Their weight often fluctuates but seldom dips as low as one with anorexia.

Another difference is that the individual with bulimia usually knows and acknowledges that something is “wrong.” They often feel shameful, remorseful, and disgusted with their behavior, especially when they use vomiting and /or laxatives as means of purging. Individuals with bulimia often feel “out of control” and want help of some kind, where people with anorexia often believe they are “fine” and “in control.” There are two subtypes of bulimia; the Binge-Purge Type describes individuals who regularly compensate for the binge eating with self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretics, or enemas and the Non-Purging Type who compensates for the binge eating through dietary fasting or excessive exercise.

Health Consequences of Bulimia Nervosa

Probably the most dangerous complication of Bulimia is the electrolyte imbalance that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possible heart failure or sudden death. This imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium and sodium from the body as a result of purging. Gastric rupture can occur during periods of binging as well as peptic ulcers and even pancreatitis. When frequent vomiting occurs, inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus is possible which can result in death. Tooth decay, staining of teeth from stomach acids released during vomiting, and gum diseases are often found in individuals with Bulimia. For those who use laxatives and/or diuretics, chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation occur resulting in one’s physical dependency on laxatives.

The recovery rate for individuals with bulimia is higher than those with anorexia simply because these individuals recognize that their behavior is “abnormal.” However the danger of bulimia is just as real anorexia.

Other Types of Eating Disorders

Other eating disorders are commonly referred to as compulsive overeating or now called binge eating, night eating syndrome, or “Eating Disorder NOS” (not otherwise specified). The diagnosis of “Eating Disorder NOS” is used when the individual does not meet all necessary criteria for one of the other disorders. Compulsive overeating or binge eating refers to individuals who continually eat large amounts of food in order to “numb out” or to hide feelings they may feel are inappropriate to have. These individuals are often clinically obese, depressed, embarrassed and commonly have medical problems as a result of obesity.

The health risks associated with binge eating is similar to those with clinical obesity. Night eating syndrome is perhaps the newest eating disorder. This is where an individual wakes in the middle of the night, gets out of bed and eats/binges. They are often completely unaware of what they have done during the night until they awake to a mess of food in the kitchen. Some will bring food to bed with them and wake up with crumbs as the only evidence of their binge. Sometimes these individuals will remember their binges and sometimes they will not. These individuals feel a huge sense of failure and loss of control which often leads to the secrecy of their disorder and the lack of seeking treatment.