If you or someone you know are experiencing unwanted, distressing or obsessive thoughts surrounding eating habits and/or body image perception, it may be more serious than you think.
It is somewhat normal to have occasional thoughts or feelings about your diet and appearance, however, it is important to take notice of the frequency and severity of these thoughts as it may begin to affect your mental wellbeing and daily life.
If not treated, other illnesses may begin to develop such as depression and anxiety affecting you personally and others around you. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender or background so if you feel as though these thoughts and feelings are becoming obsessive, it’s important to speak to someone straight away.
Understanding the symptoms, causes and signs of the 5 major disorders may help you to identify whether your experience is a problem. Here’s everything you need to know:
Overview: An extreme, calorie-restricted diet due to a fear of gaining weight. Sufferers view their physical appearance to be significantly different to how they really look; overweight or larger in perspective leading to an underweight BMI. People with this illness are often moderately – extremely malnourished, fatigued and trapped in negative thought patterns affecting their life due to constant, obsessive worries surrounding food intake and body image. However, keep in mind that you do not have to appear with protruding bones to have Anorexia Nervosa as severity can fluctuate. Anorexia Nervosa can affect both men and women of any age or background.
Causes: People with extremely low self-esteem who may idolise or feel pressured to match their appearance to other body images. This may be brought on by a constant association with media channels or pressure from outside environments such as people they know and compare with, occupation (e.g. fashion industry).
Sufferers from depression, anxiety and/or stressful situations in their life are also at high risk in developing the illness. Other psychological factors that trigger may include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or other traits of extreme perfectionism, as well as Body Dysmorphia. An imbalance of hormones due to extreme dieting plays a vital part in the brain’s ability to think and function properly. Those with family history of the illness may also be at a greater risk as it often runs down the family line whether genetically or through modeling other’s behaviours such as having a mother who is obsessed about their weight or appearance.
Signs & Symptoms: If you believe yourself or someone you know may be developing Anorexia Nervosa, it is important to get a professional diagnosis to confirm the illness. You can also look for symptoms such as: significant weight loss in a short period of time, excessive exercise, calorie counting, avoiding carbohydrates and fats in diet, evidence of laxative intake, low energy levels, facial differences; skin colour changes & sunken eyes, behavioural changes and talk of low self-esteem/self-worth, a distorted view of body physique. Other personal symptoms that you may feel are changes in libido, hormonal imbalances causing mood swings and menstrual cycle disruptions including cessation of having a menstrual period.
Overview: An inability to control eating habits and low body image perception. Bulimia Nervosa is the medical diagnosis of someone who experiences repetitive binge eating episodes followed by purging their food shortly after in order to avoid further calorie intake by vomiting or consuming laxatives. Purging is caused by a strong obsession of body image satisfaction and feelings of shame and guilt surrounding binge eating episodes. Unlike Anorexia Nervosa, it is uncommon to lose a large amount of weight because your body absorbs calories as soon as it enters your mouth. Around less than 50% of calories are eliminated through vomiting and around 10% from using laxatives therefore it is more likely that a person will either gain weight or maintain weight due to water loss. Similar however, people will also often stick to a strict diet or fast and involve excessive exercise as a part of their routine. People often become secretive and lie about what they have ate. Bulimia can become more severe if not treated and can last up to a lifetime as it is usually unnoticed by others.
Causes: Psychological factors in which affect a person’s ability to control their eating habits may be caused by stressful life situations, low self-esteem, abuse and/or trauma. People may turn to food as a source of comfort in their life however if negative body image is seen to be a major issue, this leads to repetitive purging. It is an unbreakable cycle of feeling unsatisfied or unhappy without food followed by feelings of disgust and shame. Genetics can play a role in the likelihood of developing this illness if is known to be present in family history. Other environmental or cultural influences can also play a part especially seen among women. This may be due to the fact that more women are likely to obsess over weight or body image than men due to pressures from media sources or experiencing constant comparisons to other women. Being bullied by family members or peers for weight as a child can also be a contributing developmental factor.
Signs & Symptoms: Certain behavioural patterns to look out for may include someone being constantly worried or obsessed with their body shape or weight and holding a fear of weight gain. If you are personally affected, you may notice yourself unable to control the amount of bingeing you are doing in one sitting and feeling as if you can’t control what you eat. If you are forcing yourself to purge (forced vomiting, excessive exercising or using laxatives) after bingeing episodes, this is a strong indicator that you should speak with a professional to avoid further damage to you physical and mental health. You may find your diet is unbalanced day to day, some days might entail fasting or restricting calories whilst others involve binging episodes. Hiding evidence of food that has been consumed and being secretive about what you have eaten is also another sign that can impact greatly as this is what causes the illness to often go unnoticed by others and therefore difficult to seek help independently. Other physical signs may start to appear after excessive vomiting including; calluses or red sores on knuckles and hands, damaged teeth/gums caused by stomach acid and swelling in the cheeks due to enlarged glands.
Binge Eating Disorder
Overview: A person suffering with Being Eating Disorder will experience uncontrollable urges to eat large portions of food every couple of hours or less even if they don’t feel hungry, forcing their bodies to feel uncomfortable and fatigued. Food is not purged, ultimately people result with a large amount of weight gain and will develop feelings of emotional shame and guilt around their habits. Although these feelings develop, the illness causes an emotional cycle leading to eating more food in order to cope mentally with their unhappiness. Stress and boredom may also play a vital part in the continuity of these habits. Often these habits are kept a secret from others as they are ashamed and embarrassed, people may also lie about the meals they’ve consumed throughout the day in order to feel as if they can continue eating when around other people; although eating in front of other people can be difficult.
Causes: The exact causes of the illness may differ for each person depending on certain biological, psychological and environmental factors in their life or struggles they may be dealing with. Biological factors may be due to an imbalance of hormones which regulate sugar and hunger cravings. Many factors can contribute to these hormones becoming imbalanced including stress, sleep deprivation, toxins, and other medical conditions. Other chemical imbalances in the brain which regulate addictions may come into play, causing an urge to compulsively eat. Psychological challenges such as depression is an extremely common link with binge eating due to the chemical Dopamine in our brain that is released when we do things that make us feel good; eating. It is a temporary alleviation for depression, however when a person has strong self-loathing feelings of body dissatisfaction and self-esteem they may feel as if there is no end, leading to a vicious cycle. Environmental factors may involve challenges in which a person has previously faced or is currently facing in their life. Traumatic experiences can trigger a person to begin binge eating which may last for long periods of time and may worsen if not treated with professional help. People can also resolve to binge eating to help themselves deal with emotional difficulties caused by social pressure and criticism about their body image or weight.
Signs & Symptoms: You may notice yourself or someone around you developing signs of binge eating. The most common symptoms you may find yourself feeling/doing include: being secretive about food portions/number of meals/types of food, hiding food wrappings or evidence from other people, choosing to eat alone as opposed with other people, eating whilst you are already satisfied or full, experiencing an uncontrollable urge or craving, thinking about food for the majority of your day, feelings of shamefulness and guilt after eating, having a low self esteem and perception of your body image. Signs you may notice from other people around you whom you suspect to be binge eating may include: lazy and fatigued the majority of the time, unhappy or depressed, feeling anxious about their body image, spending large amounts of money on food, rapid weight gain.
Overview: The inability to eat anything that may be considered ‘unhealthy’ or lacking nutritional value. This illness is most commonly adopted by people who are likely to suffer from other syndromes such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People suffering from Orthorexia have obsessive worries about the ingredients within a meal and will likely remove themselves from situations that involve eating food they have not prepared themselves such as events that serve lunch, dinner at a friend’s house, etc. This starts to affect their state of happiness due to the extent of the concerns. Unlike other eating disorders, the focus of Orthorexia is not generally based around how a person perceives their weight or body image, instead they develop a focus around a healthy diet and become heavily concentrated and obsessed with the quality of food and the health benefits they will gain.
Causes: When significant lifestyle changes are made to better improve a diet due to health concerns, Orthorexia can be developed by taking these concerns to an unhealthy or extreme level. People with obsessive tendencies such as perfectionism or control are at a greater risk of developing symptoms when it comes to any changes in their life or goals they largely focus on. When there is pressure from outsiders such as a career or goal, it can be easier to switch your mentality from a normal to a competitive, obsessive way of thinking about food. It can affect anyone of any age, gender or background who may feel a certain pressure towards a healthy lifestyle or have existing tenancies to avoid failure.
Signs & Symptoms: Some body image worries may be of concern however the most common signs include: avoiding food that someone else has prepared, avoiding substances such as sugar, dairy or carbohydrates, obsessing over ingredients in every meal/packet/etc., high concern with nutritional value, high concerns with the food others are eating, anxious about the food that may be present at an event, etc., idolising others as role models via social media or other platforms. Where healthy eating turns into an Eating Disorder such as Orthorexia is where this healthy eating starts to cause significant psychological distress and impact on the person’s daily functioning.
Overview: The polar opposite to Anorexia Nervosa; sufferers from Muscle Dysmorphia view their physiques to be significantly smaller to how they really look. Worrying thoughts and obsessions surrounding muscle mass percentage and appearance begin to actively take over a person’s mental health as diet and everyday routines are drastically changed. Sufferers will hold fear that if they are not exercising enough or doing the right type of exercise, they will lose muscle mass. Similar with their diet, if they are not consuming enough of the right foods, they worry it may interfere with their ability to gain muscle. There is an extremely low self-esteem factor involved, leading to the mentality that muscle gain will be the only way they will be satisfied with their body image. Muscle Dysmorphia greatly impacts a majority of men in comparison to women due to large amounts of pressure put on from the people around them and stereotypical media platforms.
Causes: Similar to other eating disorders, causes are greatly influenced by a number of biological, psychological and environmental factors. If someone has quite a significant history of dealing with abuse, bullying or other sorts of trauma it can create an obsessive need for approval and satisfaction within themselves, primarily from other people. Underlying issues of low self-esteem can also impact as a means to resolve the issue by ‘improving’ their self appearance rather than dealing with their concerns in a healthier, more long-term sustainable manner. Relationships can also be a major factor; especially men in particular may see themselves as unworthy of love in comparison to other men who appear much ‘larger’ than them. Fearing isolation and being alone will then in turn motivate them to undergo excessive exercise and highly concerned eating habits. Similar to some other eating disorders, symptoms of depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder/other perfectionism-type tendencies that pre-exist in a person may place them at a higher risk of developing this illness.
Signs & Symptoms: The main warning signs to look out for include: obsessive worrying about appearance, weight and muscular percentage, constant fear of losing muscle due to lack of exercise or diet, fear of weight loss, excessive exercise needed to maintain or build extra muscle, worrying that other lifestyle commitments may interfere with gym sessions or meals, creating unhealthy routines in order to achieve unrealistic goals, a fear against unhealthy food that doesn’t provide enough quality.
If you feel as though you’d like to get in touch with us or speak about any current concerns involving you or someone you know, we are here to listen.
Ashley Gilmour, our Clinical Psychologist holds extensive experience in dealing with a range of eating disorders with people of all ages and backgrounds. Ashley offers a tailor-made treatment plan suited to your particular needs, concerns and lifestyle to help you achieve your goals.
By visiting your local GP, you can receive an Eating Disorder Management Plan which allows you to claim the Medicare rebate of 40 sessions at Vitality Unleashed Psychology as well as 20 dietician sessions per year.
If you have any questions or need professional help for dealing with eating disorders, contact us at our clinic today on 07 5574 3888 or email us.