Eating Disorders

Information on the symptoms of eating disorders and the underlying causes of eating disorders.

eating disorders

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  1. What are Eating Disorders?
  2. Diagnosing Eating Disorders
  3. What Causes Eating Disorders?
  4. Help for Eating Disorders
  5. More Information on Eating Disorders

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating Disorders are a growing concern in today’s society and have been on the increase over the last few decades. Some causes of eating disorders are associated with the "ideal skinny figure" promoted by fashion and the media. In the end many people strive for modern culture’s thin ideal. When these factors are coupled with unhealthy and unrealistic weight goals, a dangerous fear of gaining weight, can follow. While eating disorders do involve obsessive behaviors regarding food intake and body-image, they are often deeply rooted in emotional issues of control, self-esteem and self-criticism. Affecting mostly women, Eating Disorders can result in serious health problems and even death if not treated. The various eating Disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating
  • Obesity (although not formally recognized as an eating disorder)

Diagnosing Eating Disorders

Should you seek professional help for you or your child, a battery of tests will be done by a health care professional before a diagnosis is made. This will include a full psychological as well as physical examination, with possible blood tests and urine analysis. Your doctor will be checking for confirmation of an eating disorder, as well as checking for damage or complications caused by the disorder, such as kidney problems or electrolyte abnormalities. You will be referred to a psychologist who will take a full psychological history, discuss feelings and attitudes towards food and body-image and examine eating, purging and exercising habits and rituals.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There are many different causes of eating disorders. Sometimes it is a series of factors acting together.

Common Causes Associated with Eating Disorders
  • Genetics – Research suggests that people with an Anorexic family member are approximately 4 times more likely to develop Anorexia than the general population. While this may suggest that there is a genetic component to the disorder, it may also be attributed to the shared experiences and learnt behaviors within the family. It is also likely that the personality traits related to Anorexia such as perfectionism, emotional sensitivity and perseverance are inherited rather than the disorder itself.
  • Family and Learned Behavior – As mentioned, learned behavior may contribute to an increased risk of developing Anorexia. Parents who place great importance on physical appearances, criticize their child’s body shape, or who are dieting themselves, are more likely to have a child that will develop an eating disorder. In many cases, it is young girls from families that "bottle-up" emotions and avoid conflict at all cost that develop Anorexia.
  • Culture and The Media – Western society places great emphasis on body aesthetic. Women are under scrutiny far more than men in this regard. Society is influenced by the media – a force which is instrumental in shaping ideals. Fashion dictates what is seen as ‘attractive’ and most fashion houses favor a pre-pubescent figure for women. When girls start to fill out into their rounder womanly figures, they are often met with criticism and become self-conscious. To further complicate things, the media such as TV programs and magazines often give men and women unrealistic expectations of what the body should look like - often displaying below-weight models and actresses. This can lead to a false idea of what is ‘normal’. Furthermore, many young men come to expect this standard too and so women may find themselves constantly striving to live up to skewed expectations.
  • Restrictive eating – Studies have shown that causes of eating disorders include dieting and restrictive eating which can lead to obsessions about food. This may trigger Anorexia or lead to over-eating. Peer groups can have a large influence, especially for teenage girls, as thinness is idealized and diets become fashionable. The media also encourages dieting, with the slimming industry bringing in huge amounts of revenue worldwide every year.


Help for Eating Disorders

Getting help as early as possible is important when dealing with eating disorders. Treatments often involve psychotherapy, counseling and consultations with a nutritionist, who will help restore healthy eating patterns and food behavior. Prescription medications may also be recommended to calm the mind, treat underlying problems such as depression and stop the habitual, destructive behavior. The best approach to combating any eating disorder is a holistic one that incorporates various treatment options as well as healthy lifestyle changes such as daily exercise, a balanced diet and new constructive ways of dealing with negative emotions.

More Information on Eating Disorders

What are the Health Effects of Eating Disorders?

Inadequate amounts of food result in malnutrition, which adversely affects all the body’s organs. Many individuals with eating disorders seriously damage their vital body systems, such as the heart and kidneys, often permanently. Women with Anorexia Nervosa commonly experience loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) and reproductive organs and functioning can be compromised. Anorexia and Bulimia can have serious medical complications and severe symptoms as the effects of self-starvation and purging take a serious toll on the body’s health. Some of the many consequences of eating disorders include:

  • Loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • Dry skin and brittle nails
  • Brittle and thinning hair
  • Sensitivity or intolerance to cold temperatures
  • Cardiovascular problems such as chronically low blood pressure and heart rate, palpitations, and in extreme cases, heart failure
  • Electrolyte imbalances: low potassium, sodium and magnesium
  • Kidney stones or kidney failure
  • Changes in brain chemistry often resulting in depression
  • Lowered immune system function
  • Constipation and bloating
  • Headaches due to malnutrition
  • In severe cases nerve damage can present, such as numbness or mild paralysis in the feet or legs


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