Eating disorders have become a well-known psychological and physiological malady. It seems like few families in developed countries are completely untouched by this phenomenon. All too often, this distressing ailment goes unnoticed by family and friends as well as the very people that it affects.
The symptoms, however, are not that mysterious. The earlier someone understands what kind of disorder that they are facing, the more effective treatment will be. People can also avoid many of the long-term physical and mental consequences of living with these forms of mental illness.
Due to the name and the underlying nature of the problems associated with these afflictions, some people do not take these diagnoses very seriously.
However, an eating disorder is not just a case of eating too little or eating too much. Instead, an eating disorder can have dramatic effects on a person’s health.
Each disorder is essentially distinct but almost all concern abnormal eating habits, problems with body image and with fears about food. Some eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, involve a patient mindset which aims at reducing body weight significantly and in an extreme fashion.
Other eating disorders are more typically applicable to obese patients. Nevertheless, these latter may have heightened concerns about their body image and feel inordinate amounts of guilt or shame about themselves and their appearance.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are many kinds of eating disorders. The five listed here are the largest categories of eating disorders. It is most likely that a patient would exhibit symptoms placing him or her in one of these categories. Nevertheless, diagnosis is ultimately up to physicians and other health professionals.
• Anorexia Nervosa
This is the classic eating disorder, also known sometimes simply as anorexia. When the psychological theories about this illness were still new, people became familiar with it through TV shows that dramatized some real life episodes. The musician Karen Carpenter died of complications resulting from this disorder in the early 1980s and sparked a growing awareness of the issue with the public.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an individual’s unwillingness to eat more than an insignificant amount of food. People suffering from this eating disorder often feel repulsed by food. They frequently express the desire to become thinner. However, their desire goes beyond healthy inclinations to control weight and aspire, instead, to lower body weight far below what medical professionals consider healthy.
The severity of this disorder varies. Some adult patients, left untreated, have lowered their body weight to much less than 100 pounds. Karen carpenter, who stood 5 feet and 7 inches tall, weighed less than 90 pounds when she died. While not all patients will necessarily go this far, many of them maintain a body weight and a nutritional intake that is so low that it will cause permanent damage to organs and body functions.
Studies of people suffering from anorexia nervosa have revealed that many of them and those who suffer from other disorders, are driven by a mental illness now identified by many mental health professionals as body dysmorphic disorder. They actually see their body much differently than those around them, referring to themselves as grossly fat even when they are quite underweight.
In response to the growing awareness of anorexia nervosa, some people suffering from the disorder have defended their practices and refused treatment. There is even a subculture, manifested largely on the Internet, that identifies itself as pro-ana. The name means that they are in favor of drastically limiting their weight.
• Bulimia Nervosa
Like people who suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimic patients are very concerned about their body weight and appearance. They may or may not suffer as well from body dysmorphic disorder.
Unlike those with anorexia, bulimics do not entirely avoid eating healthy and properly sized portions as meals. In fact, they may even eat quite a bit at some sittings. However, bulimics follow these meals with purges.
A purge may take several forms. In popular culture it is sometimes assumed that bulimia only involves people vomiting after they eat. In reality, some bulimics will take large quantities of laxatives or diuretics for the same purpose. The goal is to drive food out of the body before it is digested and adds to overall weight.
Bulimics often manage to maintain a proper body weight, unlike anorexics. However, they still suffer negative consequences due to their post-consumption practices. The overuse of laxatives can cause an array of problems with the digestive tract. The straining that accompanies this high dosage can also cause fissures and fistulas.
However, the most dramatic and well-known consequence of untreated bulimia involves those bulimics who purge by vomiting. The nearly constant passage of stomach acids through their esophagus and mouths can undermine tissues. Bulimics have been known to literally wear their teeth down to nubs because the acids in their vomit eat away at the enamel.
• Binge Eating Disorder
People suffering from this disorder more often have normal weights or may even be obese. They may, however, have similar goals regarding weight loss when compared to anorexics and bulimics. In the case of these patients, though, suffer episodes in which they eat unusually large amounts of food and feel that they cannot stop themselves.
• Compulsive Eating Disorder
This is similar to binge eating disorder. However, compulsive overeaters tend to binge more frequently and are less likely to have goals for weight loss. They feel that they cannot stop eating but, unlike many binge eaters, they will also have normal periods when they eat lightly. The important thing for someone with this disorder is to be eating always.
• Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified
Sometimes a person has traits from a variety of eating disorders without having enough from any particular one in order to qualify for that diagnosis. Nevertheless, they suffer from unusual and abnormal eating habits that affect their health.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
There are many varieties of treatments for eating disorders. Due to the distinct symptoms that they possess, each requires different approaches to therapy. In general, the available treatments can be categorized as forms of outpatient or inpatient care.
Outpatient treatment consists of therapy and as much dietary monitoring as possible. Patients often need education about food and nutrition. Not all anorexics, for example, are aware of the permanent damage that can happen to them due to low caloric intake and the absence of sufficient proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals in their food.
Sometimes, inpatient treatment is required. Such facilities can provide supervision and ensure that patients receive the proper amount of food.
Dealing with an eating disorder is not easy. Even if the individual recognizes that there is a problem, it is not always possible to control it. Thankfully, there are professional institutions out there that can help.