Know the Signs: Eating Disorders

Early detection improves chances of successfully treating a condition

Eating disorders can have serious, life-altering consequences in both children and adults. But they go beyond the typical associations, which are simply undereating or purging after large meals.

Such disorders most commonly develop in the teen or young adult years, though it’s not unheard of to see such condition develop later in life, or in rare cases in young children. Obviously, eating disorders harm the individual’s ability to receive proper nutrition, but they can also have harmful consequences to the heart, digestive system, bones, dental health, and lead to even more serious diseases.

We take a look at some of the more common eating disorders, their warning signs, and traits.

Anorexia nervosa

Usually referred to as simply anorexia, this serious condition is characterized by strikingly low body weight and a fear of gaining weight that distorts body shape, image, and perception. In other words, anorexia can cause a person of a healthy weight to view themselves as overweight, and perhaps most dangerously, an underweight or dangerously underweight individual to focus on flaws that they believe will be fixed by further weight loss.

The obsession with weight and body shape can cause a person with anorexia to go to extreme measures to maintain or alter that shape, leading to interference with normal activities and health. This can include avoidance of meals, excessive exercise, or unnecessary use of laxatives or diet aids.

A few common warning signs of anorexia:

  • Reduction in food intake
  • Regimented eating habits (cutting food into small pieces, chewing each bite excessively)
  • Denial of hunger
  • Progressive withdrawal from friends and family

Bulimia nervosa

Another common, yet life-threatening eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, commonly referred to as bulimia. This condition differs from anorexia is that the individual doesn’t avoid food, but seeks it in large portions (often separate from meal times) and later feels guilty for overeating, resulting in repeated purging.

With bulimia, people often restrict their food intake during the day or in the presence of others, choosing or forcing them to go on a food binge either late at night or in complete seclusion. The large amount of eating can leads of feelings of nausea that can lead to purging on their own, but the condition is more commonly associated with guilt over excessive calorie consumptions, followed by forced purging on the part of the individual.

Those who don’t resort to purging are likely to resort to tactics similar to those with anorexia—excessive exercise, or use of laxatives. Bulimia is also associated with an unhealthy body image—preoccupation with weight and shape, and a harsh, self-critical view of your own physical features.

Warning signs may be more difficult to identify than those of anorexia, but they include:

  • Repeated binge eating
  • Feelings of guilt of shame related to eating
  • Comments or other behaviors that suggest poor body image

Binge eating

Similar to bulimia, but without the purging or other behaviors to rid oneself of the excessive calories. Binge eating is characterized by overeating and an inability to stop eating even once full. Some binge eaters will continue eating even after they’re uncomfortably full.

Like people with bulimia, binge eaters will often feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty about their excessive eating—but won’t attempt to purge or otherwise eliminate the excessive calories.

Note: the occasional large meal isn’t cause for concern, as problematic binge eating typically occurs at least once per week.

Common warning signs include:

  • Often observed eating rapidly and with little regard for portion size
  • Not afraid to eat with others, but will rapidly move to isolation at the conclusion of a meal
  • Anger or irritation after eating

Lesser-known eating disorders

Rumination disorder is a condition characterized by an individual repeatedly regurgitating food after eating. But it’s not associated with any eating disorder in particular. Rumination disorder is most commonly observed in infants or in people with intellectual disabilities.

Warnings signs don’t really appear with this condition, as it’s normally quite observable. People who are recovering from other eating disorders are no more or less prone to rumination disorder than anyone else.

Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder is characterized by a person become undernourished due to a lack of interest in food. This usually occurs because of an aversion to or fear of food. It may be something about the smell, color, or texture of the food, or even something as simple as fear of choking while eating. Regardless, this avoidance of food is not associated with concerns about weight or body image, as is the case with some other eating disorders.

Eating disorders can take over a person’s life, and unfortunately, the individual suffering from the condition is often the last to recognize the problem. These conditions are notoriously difficult to overcome by one’s self. If your patient, or loved one, exhibits a number of these symptoms, seek medical help or at least urge the individual to talk with a doctor. If the person isn’t prepared to take that step, be available as a friend or a sympathetic ear.