Understanding Eating Disorders

Roughly 30 million people in the United States suffer from some form of eating disorder, yet very little about these conditions is common knowledge. Far too often, people believe eating disorders are things that only affect teenage girls and that a girl just needs to get her act together. These are false assumptions. Eating disorders may affect people of any age or gender, and are much more serious than the patient being stubborn.

Eating disorders often coexist with anxiety and/or depressive disorders. A patient with an eating disorder and an anxiety disorder may have more difficulty recovering and may feel more drastic effects of the disorder. To put it simply, an eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food. There are three common eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa presents as a refusal or inability to eat. Patients with this condition constantly believe they are extremely overweight, even when dangerously underweight. These patients become literally obsessive over their eating habits, taking in as few calories as possible, burning as many calories as possible, and constantly checking bodyweight. In addition to taking in as few calories as they can get away with, anorexic patients may purge their precious few calories from their bodies by means of vomiting or using laxatives, as well as overexerting themselves in compulsive exercise. Left untreated, anorexia may have serious, often painful, consequences for the body. such as:

  • Hair loss

  • Loss of bone density

  • Dry or yellowish skin

  • Muscle pain/weakness/loss

  • Anemia

  • Severe constipation

  • Dangerously low blood pressure

  • Decreased internal body temperature, leading to the person feeling cold at all times

  • Infrequent or absent menstrual periods in women

  • Lethargy 

Bulimia nervosa is often thought of as “bingeing and purging.” A bulimic patient may feel a loss of control and eat excessive amounts of food, after which an overwhelming sense of guilt forces the patient to do anything possible to offset the effects of overeating – vomiting, using laxatives, exercising excessively, and sometimes fasting for a prolonged period of time are all common reactions. Bulimic patients tend to have a healthy weight, but an unhealthy body image, either believing they are extremely overweight or having a fear of becoming overweight. Bulimic patients may experience many physical complications as a result of their disorder, including:

  • Electrolyte imbalances

  • Oral/dental problems, particularly in patients who are prone to forced vomiting

  • Chronically swollen and pained throat, again particularly in patients who self-induce vomiting

  • Swollen glands in the neck, underneath the jaw

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD)

  • Intestinal distress, pain, and irritation, particularly in patients who tend to abuse laxatives

  • Kidney damage

  • Dehydration 

Binge-eating disorder is associated with people who have frequent episodes of binge-eating, or feeling as though they have no control over themselves in regards to food. These patients tend to be overweight or obese. These patients tend to feel an overwhelming sense of shame about their eating habits, but instead of this shame and guilt driving them to purge, it often sends them into additional binges. Since people with this disorder tend to overindulge on foods of little nutritional value, they may experience malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Obesity leads to a number of serious physical problems, ranging from cardiac malfunctions to severe musculoskeletal disorders.

Untreated eating disorders may exacerbate the effects of underlying or coexisting anxiety or depressions disorders. These disorders in and of themselves are known for not only causing emotional suffering, but for having very real physical effects on the body, including chronic pain, gastrointestinal distress, sleep difficulties, and decreased energy. It is important to treat the eating disorder as well as any co-occurring anxiety or depressive disorders. A general practitioner may be able to get you started on the path to treatment.


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