Eating disorders: Treatment & recovery, Causes, Symptoms & Types

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. They can affect people of all age groups, genders, backgrounds and cultures. The number of people with eating disorders is increasing. We understand more about eating disorders now than ever before. Yet, many people live with these disorders for a long time without a clinical diagnosis or treatment.

The most common risk factors for the onset of an eating disorder are:

  • body dissatisfaction
  • dieting 
  • depression.

Causes of eating disorders

There is no single cause of eating disorders – a number of factors combine to cause them. Social, psychological and biological factors all play a part, in varying degrees, for different people.

Social factors

Contributing social factors may include:

  • media and other presentations of the ‘ideal’ body shape as lean and fit
  • pressure to achieve and succeed
  • peer pressure to be or behave in a certain way
  • a cultural tendency to judge people by their appearance
  • occupations or activities that emphasise a particular body shape and size – for example, ballet, modelling, gymnastics and elite sports.

Major life changes or events may also contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, including:

  • relationship breakdowns
  • pregnancy and childbirth
  • the death of a loved one.

Eating disorders can also be triggered by the accumulation of many minor stressors such as:

  • fear of the responsibilities of adulthood
  • a belief that love is dependent on high achievement
  • poor communication between family members.

Biological factors

Contributing biological factors may include:

  • adolescence and its associated physical changes
  • genetic or familial factors – for example, families that are overtly focused on food, weight, shape and appearance.

Psychological factors

Contributing psychological factors may include:

  • low self-esteem
  • negative body image
  • perfectionism
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • impulsivity
  • obsessive thinking
  • difficulties expressing emotions.

Symptoms of eating disorders

There are some warning signs that are common to people with eating disorders. These may include:

  • weight loss, weight gain or weight fluctuation – usually due to dieting, but sometimes from an illness or stressful situation
  • preoccupation with body appearance or weight
  • sensitivity to cold
  • faintness, dizziness and fatigue
  • increased mood changes and irritability
  • social withdrawal
  • anxiety or depression
  • inability to think rationally or concentrate
  • increased interest in preparing food for others
  • obsessive rituals, such as only drinking out of a certain cup
  • eating in secret
  • wearing baggy clothes or changes in clothing style
  • excessive or fluctuating exercise patterns
  • avoidance of social situations involving food
  • frequent excuses not to eat
  • disappearance of large amounts of food from the refrigerator or pantry
  • trips to the bathroom after meals
  • constant and excessive dieting

Treatment and recovery for people with eating disorders

Many different forms of therapy are available. It is important to remember that different approaches work for different people. Finding the right approach and early intervention maximises prospects of recovery. Professional help and support from others is important.

Because eating disorders affect people physically and mentally, a range of health professionals might be involved in treatment, including: 

  • psychiatrists
  • psychologists
  • GPs
  • dietitians
  • social workers
  • nurses 
  • dentists.

Types of eating disorders

The main types of eating disorder include: 

  • anorexia nervosa: characterized by restricted eating, weight loss, and fear of gaining weight
  • bulimia nervosa: periods of binge eating (often in secret), followed by attempts to compensate with excessive exercise, vomiting, or periods of strict dieting. Binge eating is often accompanied by feelings of shame and being ‘out of control’
  • binge eating disorder: characterized by recurrent periods of binge eating. Binge eating can include:
    • eating much more than usual
    • eating until uncomfortably full
    • eating large amounts when not feeling hungry. 

Feelings of guilt, disgust and depression can follow binge eating episodes. Binge eating does not involve compensatory behaviours, such as for bulimia nervosa

  • Pica – Pica is another eating disorder that involves eating things that are not considered food.
  • Rumination disorder: Rumination disorder is another newly recognized eating disorder.
    It describes a condition in which a person regurgitates food they have previously chewed and swallowed, re-chews it, and then either re-swallows it or spits it out 
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder:  ARFID generally develops during infancy or early childhood, it can persist into adulthood. What’s more, it’s equally common among men and women.

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