An eating disorder is a psychological condition that leads to forming an unhealthy set of eating habits. These might begin with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape in the initial phase and can progress to further severe stages, which may even result in death if left unattended. People with eating disorders can have different symptoms, including a severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging patterns like vomiting or over-exercising. These disorders are typically found in societies where there are unrealistic standards of beauty and an excessive emphasis on looking thin.
Types of eating disorders:
1. Anorexia Nervosa: It is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder, characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight, self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Prolonged restriction of food can lead to low body weight and malnourishment. The disorder is usually found in those who are already underweight.
- Fear of gaining weight
- Excessive fasting or exercise despite low weight
- Lack of recognition of the seriousness of persistently low body weight
Restricting behaviour or binge eating and purging behaviours
Medical complications associated:
- Signs of depression, social withdrawal, insomnia, and diminished sex drive
- Elevated suicidal tendencies
- Diminished cognitive functioning
- Compromised height and stature
- Low body weight
- Delayed puberty
- Amenorrhea (menstrual irregularity)
- Gut issues like stomach ache, bloating, constipation, and acid reflux
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of and/or weakened heart muscle
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
- Abnormally slow/elevated heart rate
- Heart failure
2. Bulimia Nervosa - A potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours like self-induced vomiting, or over-exercising to compensate for the guilt of the binge eating.
- Regular intake of large portion sizes, followed by a sense of loss of control over eating behaviour
- Recurrent use of compensatory behaviours to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications, fasting, or over-exercising
- Binge eating and purging episodes occurring at least once a week
Medical complications associated:
- Difficulty in swallowing due to oesophageal tears
- Gastric complications such as constipation, reduced bowel function, Gastro intestinal bleeding, acid reflux and gastric rupture.
- Irregular mensuration
- Premature and/or low-weight births
- Dental problems like cavities, tooth sensitivity and enamel erosion, and bleeding gums
- Callused or scarred fingers
- Ruptured blood vessels of the eyes or retinal detachment
- Chronic dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
- Cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rate)
3. Orthorexia Nervosa - Orthorexia, or Orthorexia Nervosa, is a damaging obsession with healthy eating and quality and purity of food in the diet. Unlike other eating disorders, people with orthorexia disorder are mostly concerned with food quality and not quantity. Unlike people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia, people with orthorexia are rarely focused on losing weight.
- Compulsive adherence to an eating plan: What was originally a choice, gradually becomes a compulsion.
- Eating only certain “superfoods” which are considered healthy by society. These restrictions make them eliminate many food groups, leading to nutritional deficiencies.
- Extreme feeling of guilt, shame and anxiety on deviation from normal eating pattern.
- Extreme obsession with “purity” and the health benefits of foods eaten to an extent, that they start obsessing over every ingredient in the diet and severely restricting the types of food to be eaten.
4. Binge Eating disorder - People with a binge-eating disorder lose control over their eating. This particular eating pattern is not followed by compensatory behaviours like purging, excessive exercising, or fasting. People with binge-eating disorders are generally overweight or obese.
- Having unusually large amounts of food at a particular time
- Eating without even feeling hungry
- Eating fast during binge episodes
- Having food until uncomfortably full
- Eating in isolation to avoid embarrassment
- Feeling distressed and guilty about eating
- Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss
5. Rumination Disorder - It is an eating disorder characterised by repeated and unintentional episodes of regurgitation. People regurgitate undigested or partially digested food from the stomach, re-chew it, and then either re-swallow it or spit it out. Rumination usually occurs after every meal, soon after eating. Treatment may include behavioural therapies or medications.
- Abdominal pain or pressure relieved by regurgitation
- A feeling of fullness
- Bad breath
- Unintentional weight loss
Associated medical complications:
- Damaged oesophageal tube (tube between the mouth and the stomach)
- Unhealthy weight loss
- Dental erosion
- Bad breath
- Social isolation
How to cope with an eating disorder:
- Maintaining a food and mood diary: Identify and note down the factors which trigger the eating pattern and ones which help control binge eating impulses.
- Professional support: Individuals battling an eating disorder should seek help from either a health professional, a counsellor, or a nutritionist, and learn appropriate coping mechanisms.
- Practice mindfulness: Inculcate self-control and self-acceptance through holistic approaches like meditation and yoga.
- Support: It is the key to any successful recovery. Look for someone to talk to, either online, or at a support group, a friend, a family member, or a significant other who can help feel motivated to keep going.
- Exercise: Moderate exercise as suggested by the doctor can help improve body image and elevate mood by releasing endorphins and reducing stress levels.
- Sleep: A disturbed sleep pattern also affects the eating schedule adversely. It is therefore suggested to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
Eating disorders can be life-threatening as they can have serious health consequences, adversely affect productivity and social relationships. If left untreated, they can also damage the functioning of organs and lead to nutritional wasting. Hence, it is recommended that people suffering from an eating disorder should take professional help. Timely treatment can significantly improve the condition and help in a person’s recovery physically and emotionally.