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August 13, 2020 • read
Six signs you might have an eating disorder
Eating disorders are complicated. They’re not as simple as wanting to lose five pounds, or avoiding carbohydrates because of a new diet trend. An eating disorder is a mental illness that makes you obsessed with weight, body shape, and food.
Friends and family members will often wonder “Why did this happen? They seemed so happy before.” There’s no satisfying answer to this question because every person with an eating disorder is different. One consistent thread is inner turmoil. A person might develop an eating disorder to cope with a chaotic life, other mental health issues, or having few social bonds. Society’s beauty standards are usually not the only factor, although they do play a role. Society prizes unrealistic body types that can lead to constant dissatisfaction with your own body.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
There are many types of eating disorders. New types are still being discovered as doctors learn about different signs and symptoms. The list below contains the most common eating disorders.
People with anorexia consume less food than is required for daily life. This is fueled by an intense fear of becoming fat, even though the person may be underweight.
People with bulimia often follow a binge-purge cycle. They may also undereat when purging is not an option. After large meals, a person with bulimia will attempt to “get rid” of calories by inducing themselves to vomit, taking laxatives, or excessively exercising.
Binge eating disorder
People with binge eating disorder consume large amounts of food in a small window of time. They’ll feel out of control and unable to stop themselves from eating. Binge eating can cause a lot of shame and distress, which continues the unhealthy relationship with food.
People with orthorexia are preoccupied with healthy eating to the point that their diet becomes extremely restrictive. There may not be a weight loss goal with orthorexia. Instead, focus is placed on the “purity” of diet.
Exercise is healthy and makes us feel good, but it can also turn into an unhealthy coping mechanism. People who compulsively exercise may feel guilt if they can’t get their usual workouts in. They may also exercise at the expense of other obligations in their life.
Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
OSFED used to be called “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS). It’s a term for eating disorders that don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories. People with OSFED have many eating disorder behaviours. For example, they might show all of the symptoms of anorexia, except for extreme weight loss.
What are signs that you or a loved one might have an eating disorder?
1. Preoccupation with food, nutritional information, and/or diet culture
As eating disorders take hold, patients become more and more obsessed with food and nutrition. They might watch cooking shows, read cookbooks, and compulsively read nutritional information on packaged food. People with eating disorders are known to cook elaborate meals for friends and family, while eating scant little themselves.
At the same time, people with eating disorders are driven to lose weight. They might look at diet advertisements, weight-loss programs, and even eating disorder internet forums.
This all leads to a lifestyle of being surrounded by food. But, the person with the eating disorder is not allowed to eat it. The preoccupation with food is likely a symptom of both mental illness, and of starvation.
2. Food rituals
Many people with eating disorders develop compulsive behaviours around eating. When these rituals are interrupted, the person can experience a great deal of anxiety and refuse to eat altogether. Rituals around might include weighing food very precisely, using the same spoon or plate, disassembling food (like taking a sandwich apart), chopping food into tiny pieces, and only eating at specified times.
3. Secrecy around food
Secrecy is one of the hallmarks of an eating disorder. Eating is a social connector, which makes it hard for people with eating disorders to carry on their behaviours without being noticed. Part of the illness is the belief that people offering help are only trying to sabotage their weight loss.
People with eating disorders might skip meals and claim they’ve already eaten. Or, they might take food off their plate and hide it in their clothing pockets. People might induce themselves to vomit quietly or mask the noise with other sounds, like a running shower. Or, they might only want to eat when they’re alone so their food rituals won’t draw attention. Eating disorders drive people to become more and more secretive as the condition worsens and the need for treatment becomes urgent.
4. Fear of food
Eating disorders lead people to adopt irrational and extreme fears of certain foods. Many patients have a list of “fear foods” that they believe will make them fat, or will cause extreme anxiety if they’re on a menu.
Fear of food can start off minor. Maybe the person decides “No more junk food,” which sounds reasonable enough for a healthy person to say. Instead of having a relaxed attitude toward their new diet rule, the person will be extremely strict with themselves about never consuming these foods. The list of forbidden food tends to grow over time so that relatively healthy foods are included. Eventually, the list of acceptable foods is much shorter than the list of forbidden foods.
It’s not just food that people with eating disorders are afraid of. It’s also the idea of being forced to receive treatment. Treatment for eating disorders often involves a weight-gain diet plan, which can be terrifying for someone who doesn’t feel ready for that step.
5. Getting sick often
Not eating enough calories, vitamins, and minerals can lead to lowered immune system function. People with eating disorders may find that they get sick often, and can never quite shake their cough or cold. They might also feel cold all the time, experience fainting, and find that their wounds heal slowly.
6. Feeling guilty
Nearly all eating disorders encompass some element of guilt, whether around eating, exercising, purging, or for seeking treatment. When compulsive eating disorder behaviours can’t be performed, the patient may feel extreme anxiety and guilt. This guilt can only be remedied by performing the behaviours later on, when they’re alone.
Guilt is also extremely common for the eating disorder patient’s family members. Many parents and guardians rack their brains for one memory, one triggering event that could explain how the mental illness developed. In reality, eating disorders don’t discriminate between “good families” and “bad families.” While eating disorders do develop out of internal stress and trauma, families shouldn’t automatically blame themselves. The blame game diverts attention from what’s really important — supporting the person in their recovery and modelling healthy behaviours for them to follow.
How to get help for an eating disorder
1. Take the brave step
Seeking treatment for an eating disorder is a whirlwind of emotions. On one hand, you’re committing to being strong, healthy, and self-sufficient in your life going forward. On the other hand, it can feel like you’re “betraying” your eating disorder. Your eating disorder might also be a coping mechanism for uncontrollable trauma in your life.
One thing’s for sure, you are the most important participant in your treatment journey. It takes concerted effort to go against a very strong eating disorder voice in your head. This is not a process you have to go alone — there’s lots of support for people with eating disorders.
Therapy is highly necessary to treat an eating disorder. Since eating disorders lead to lots of irrational beliefs, working with a psychotherapist to therapeutically challenge those beliefs is a great step towards breaking their hold. A therapist can also work to unearth the underlying issues behind an eating disorder.
3. Nutritional counselling
Going back to a “normal” diet after experiencing an eating disorder can be distressing, and even dangerous. People with anorexia should not attempt to increase their intake of calories all at once. Planning a healthy recovery diet can be overwhelming. Speaking to a dietitian can help you figure out a sustainable meal plan that offers structure and a well-balanced nutritional profile.
4. Support groups
People with eating disorders, and their family members, often feel very alone. Support groups get rid of that notion. There are lots of other people in recovery who are experiencing the same thoughts and fears. It can be very validating to meet other people with eating disorders, as the general public cannot understand just how powerful an eating disorder can be. At the same time, it’s a place to speak honestly, ask for help, and create social bonds to lean on through the recovery journey.
Eating disorders are complex, emotional illnesses. It’s important to seek treatment from a professional to take the first step towards regaining true control over your life. You can speak to our psychotherapists and dietitians from the comfort of your home. Recovery is a long road, but it’s a little easier when you have support.