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How to Recognize and Deal with Eating Disorders

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How to Recognize and Deal with Eating Disorders
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When I say “eating disorder” I bet the first thing that went through your mind was “anorexia,” perhaps accompanied by an image of a thin, young girl. This common misconception causes many eating disorders to go unrecognized. The truth is that eating disorders do not only affect women. In fact, you don’t even need to be thin to suffer from one.

Eating disorders are more common than you might think. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 percent of young females have anorexia, and 4 percent have bulimia. A further 13 percent of females aged 14 through 25 have some form of eating disorder, which is often undiagnosed. This means someone in your family could be dealing with an eating disorder. It could even be affecting you. Knowing the signs and causes may help you prevent your friend, sibling or child from developing a disturbed relationship with food. Recognizing the early signs and understanding the psychology behind eating disorders could help you intervene and help in time.

Dieting Can Develop Into an Eating Disorder

Sadly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and the rate of hospitalizations has increased by nearly 20 percent in the last 15 years. Dieting, especially extreme dieting, is one of the most important and obvious predictors of eating disorders.

A study from 2006 performed on Qatari schoolgirls age 14–19 showed that 80.7 percent were dieting, and of these, 8.3 percent were using extreme methods. Why is this a problem? Of dieting girls who are using extreme methods, such as restricting food, 29 percent will develop an eating disorder within a year.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines three major types of eating disorder: Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by periods of uncontrolled eating, usually triggered by a negative emotion, or by using food as a comfort. A person suffering from BED will eat a large amount of food in a short period of time, and ignore the sensations of fullness and discomfort.

Over 50 percent of people suffering from BED also suffer from food addiction. A study carried out in February 2015 confirmed that processed foods are addictive. This is not surprising when we consider how much sugar and other additives are included to improve or enhance the taste.

Anorexia Nervosa

Most people have heard about anorexia, but few are able to recognize it. Anorexia is the most dangerous form of eating disorder, and people suffering from it have a nine times greater risk of dying. It can be very hard to spot because the person suffering from it becomes an expert at hiding the symptoms.

Anorexia literally means “no appetite” and the person severely restricts what they eat, becoming very thin. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Very low energy intake. Eating under the recommended amount of calories for age and gender. This leads to a very low body weight and can lead to physical complications, such as brittle bones and organ failure.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight even though the person is underweight.
  • The person has a distorted view of his or her own body. They may view themselves as being fat even though they are very thin.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia involves binge-eating episodes followed by behaviors intended to compensate for these episodes, such as extreme dieting, over exercising, using laxatives or throwing up. A dentist can notice this in the appearance of the teeth, since the stomach acid erodes their surface when you regularly throw up. This behavior may also cause an imbalance of electrolytes in the blood, leading to irregular heartbeats and heart problems.


A person suffering from an eating disorder may do everything to hide it from others, but if you are aware of the subtle signs you can spot it and get the person help:

  • Hiding food, having a secret stash of high-calorie food.
  • Lots of empty packs or candy papers in the garbage.
  • Losing weight fast.
  • Being underweight but dieting.
  • Intense fear of being fat.
  • Wearing baggy clothes to cover a shrinking body frame.
  • Claiming not to be hungry or saying that one just had a huge meal to avoid eating.
  • Going to the bathroom after eating, often flushing water to avoid others hearing sounds of throwing up.
  • Eating uncontrollably or eating too much, too often.
  • Gaining weight quickly and fluctuating body weight.
  • Very low self-esteem.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

The causes behind eating disorders are complex and not entirely determined. The problem goes deep and lies in a poor self-image and low self-esteem. Using food as a comfort or as a support when depression arises can also cause an eating disorder to develop. There are factors known to increase the risk of developing an eating disorder:

  • Having a family member with an eating disorder.
  • Not having family meals together.
  • Being raised in a family in which people avoid tackling difficult subjects and instead pretend that everything is fine.
  • Peer pressure to look a certain way.
  • Being exposed to very thin ideals through the media.
  • Possessing an insufficient amount of knowledge about the body and what constitutes a proper diet.

Dealing With an Eating Disorder

Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a friend? Ignoring the problem will only make it worse. An eating disorder is difficult to deal with and the only way to conquer the negative thoughts and eating behaviors is through the support of family and friends.

  • Sit down with the person and respectfully raise your concern.
  • Don’t accuse the person, but rather say that you have noticed that he or she is not feeling well and that you are worried.
  • Avoid judging their body. Instead of commenting on their looks or discussing whether they need to lose weight or not, gently ask why their body weight is so important to them, how they feel about themselves and what can be done to get back to an uncomplicated relationship with food.
  • If you are not already eating together as a family, start doing so.
  • Offer your support. It is likely that the person will not immediately admit to having a problem, but let them know that you notice them, care about them and are there to help them beat the behavior that is hurting them.
  • Sometimes the eating disorder is so severe that the only option is to get professional help.

Start the Healing

It is possible to recover from an eating disorder, but it takes time, patience and love. A person’s worth does not show on a scale. It is the inside: their inspirational ideas, generosity and humor that create love and appreciation between people. Never give up hope and always show your loved one that you are there and that you love them for all the things that make them special — that they are special just because of who they are.