About Eating Disorders

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders – such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder can include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), these are the basic characteristics of some of the most common types of eating disorder:

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Restricting food intake to below the requirements for a particular individuals physical requirements
  • Intense fear of weight gain and obsession with weight and continual behaviors to prevent weight gain
  • Inability to recognize true body shape or recognize the seriousness of condition
  • May or may not use binge eating and/or purging behaviors

Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Eating an unusually large amount of food at one time followed by compensatory behaviors (such as vomiting, taking laxatives and/or excessive exercise) to prevent weight gain
  • A feeling of being out of control during the binge-eating occurrence
  • Self-judgment largely based on weight and shape

Binge Eating Disorder:

  • Recurrent situations of eating an unusually large amount of food at one time
  • A feeling of being out of control during the behavior
  • May have feelings of shame or guilt towards eating which can lead to eating alone
  • May eat until the individual is beyond full to the point of discomfort

Note: There are several other types of feeding or eating disorders outlined in the DSM-5. Many people may not have every symptom of a disorder, but may still receive a feeding or eating disorder diagnosis. If you or your loved one is experiencing significant discomfort surrounding food that interrupts basic functions but does not meet the above criteria, you should still seek professional help.

Is it an Eating Disorder?

A popular misconception about eating disorders is that if someone has one, it will be obvious by their low weight and starvation habits. However, those suffering from eating disorders can be of any weight and are often adept at hiding their illness. To help with early detection, here is a brief list of eating disorder signs, symptoms and behaviors to keep an eye out for as they may be indicative of a bigger problem:

  • Makes frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight
  • In general, behaviors and attitudes indicate that weight loss, dieting and control of food are becoming primary concerns
  • Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time or lots of wrappers and containers indicating consumption or large amounts of food
  • Evidence of purging behavior, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting, presence of wrappers or packages of laxatives or diuretics
  • Develops food rituals (e.g. eats only a particular food or food group, excessive chewing, doesn’t allow foods to touch, etc.)
  • Skips meals or takes small portions of food at regular meals
  • Hides body with baggy clothes
  • Maintains excessive, rigid exercise regimen—despite weather, fatigue, illness or injury—because of the need to “burn off” calories
  • Drinks excessive amounts of water and/or uses excessive amounts of mouthwash, mints and gum

How Can I Help?

When initiating a conversation with someone who may have an eating disorder, it is important to remain supportive, non-judgmental and let them know that they are not alone. Here are some recommended Dos and Don’ts of talking to someone about their eating disorder:

Do:

  • Learn the difference between facts and myths about weight, nutrition and exercise
  • Ask what you can do to help
  • Listen openly and reflectively; be patient and non-judgmental
  • Talk with the person in a kind way, when you are not angry, frustrated or upset 
  • Explain the reasons for our concerns, without mentioning specific eating behavior
  • Ask if he/she is willing to explore these concerns with a healthcare professional who understands eating disorders
  • Remind your loved one that many people have successfully recovered from an eating disorder

Don’t:

  • Invade privacy and contact the patient’s doctors, friends or others to check up behind his/her back
  • Demand weight changes (even is clinically necessary for health)
  • Insist the person eat every type of food at the table
  • Make eating, food, clothes or appearance the focus of conversation
  • Offer more help than you are qualified to give

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