Eating disorders come in many shapes and sizes, are more about a mental state than food and often require medical and psychological support when trying to overcome them. Eating disorders are identified by an obsession with food and/or body shape. These afflictions are quite prevalent with an estimate of 20 million women and 10 million men being affected at some point in their lifetime, according to this article. Most of those stricken are young women.
There are several factors that may trigger an eating disorder:
- Genetics - There have been studies done on twins and adopted subjects that suggest that heredity may be a factor. It seems that if one twin develops an eating disorder, there is a 50% chance that the other one will also.
- Personality disorders - Traits such as perfectionism, impulsivity and neurosis contribute to the likelihood someone might develop an eating disorder.
- Brain function - Levels of dopamine and serotonin may have some influence on the development of a disorder. This is relatively new science and must be explored further.
- Cultural pressure - We all know that so much of the media shows unrealistic representation of what a woman's body should look like. With the influence of social media and significantly altered photography to look unnaturally thin and flawless, young women are holding themselves to an unattainable standard. This seems to be a unique problem to Western culture where being thin is considered the ideal body size. In cultures where this standard is not applied, eating disorders are very rare or do not exist.
Following are some known eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa - This is the most well known disorder, brought into stark reality by the 1983 death of singer Karen Carpenter. This disorder affects many more women than men and usually impacts adolescent girls. Sufferers of anorexia have body dysmorphia, meaning they don't have a realistic view of how their body looks and see themselves as overweight, even if they are dangerously underweight. They severely restrict their calories and obsessively monitor their weight. People suffering with anorexia usually either restrict their calories or eat then purge the food by vomiting, use of diuretics or laxatives, or excessive exercise. They intensely fear weight gain.
- Bulimia Nervosa - similar to anorexia, bulimia tends to be more prevalent among young women. Sufferers often eat large amounts of food at a given time to the point of pain then purge after they can't consume any more. They feel that they have no way of controlling their food consumption. Purging usually consists of vomiting to relieve the discomfort from the extreme overeating and to eliminate the calories from all the food they ate. They also have a fear of weight gain.
- Binge Eating Disorder - People with this disorder will binge eat large amounts of food without the purging component. They also feel that they have no control when they are in the midst of a binge. This was my behavior many years ago and God help anything or anyone who got in my way. Often the binge eating is done secretly. Binge eaters are usually overweight or obese and significantly increase their risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
- Pica - People with pica usually crave unusual items that are not considered food like hair, dirt, soap, rocks, paper as well as a number of other such items. People of all ages can develop pica but is more commonly found in children, pregnant women and people with certain mental illnesses. People who suffer with pica are at high risk of eating something poisonous that can be fatal.
- Rumination Disorder - This is also a recently identified disorder. People dealing with it usually chew food, regurgitate the food, then chew it again and either swallow or spit it out. This disorder is found in infants, children and adults, but with infants it usually disappears within the first year of life.
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) - This can also appear in people of all ages. It often resolves itself as children get a little older but can follow them into adulthood. People who severely restrict the foods they eat will often suffer malnutrition, weight loss and poor development if they are still growing. These folks often have a general distaste for most foods, limiting their selections to very few food items. This disorder is an extreme version of the "picky eater".
There are other eating disorders that have similar symptoms but the common denominator is that disordered eating is caused by an unhealthy relationship with food. Although the food aspect is just a symptom of the underlying mental disorder, an important part of the healing is to reestablish a wholesome body, mind, spirit connection with the food we eat.
If you think your relationship with food falls into one of the categories outlined above, please seek the help of a professional counselor that specializes in eating disorders. It could save your life.
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