Eating disorders can affect every aspect of one’s quality of life, not just mealtime. These conditions can have severe, sometimes fatal, health effects and lead to a host of other, related symptoms. Though there are many different kinds of eating disorders that affect millions of people across the country, there are still many misconceptions about them.
Arguably the most prevalent one is that these conditions are a lifestyle choice. The reality is that an eating disorder isn’t limited to someone’s eating behavior. It can also disturb their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to know the key signs to look out for. Today, we’re taking a look at a few of the most common eating disorders, and how to find treatment.
Individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa, usually shortened to just anorexia, will tend to avoid, or severely restrict their food intake. You may also notice that people with this condition consume very small quantities of food, or only eat certain foods.
As the condition progresses, you may notice an abnormally low body weight, yet there’s still an intense fear of gaining weight. This will cause the person to distort their diet, seeking out foods that will help control their shape and weight. In many cases, people with anorexia will use extreme efforts to stay a certain size or keep a certain number on the scale.
These habits will eventually interfere with their lives, especially if the individual is also exercising aggressively to keep their weight low.
The symptoms of anorexia can be both physical and emotional in nature. Let’s take a look at the most common ones.
Physical Symptoms of Anorexia
Most of the physical symptoms of anorexia mimic those of starvation. At first, you may not even notice them, especially in people who have always been naturally thin. Depending on their scale and severity, these physical symptoms can also be easy for some individuals to conceal, especially at the beginning.
The physical signs to watch for include:
- Thin appearance
- Extreme weight loss
- Discolored or blushed fingers
- Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
- Thinning, breaking, or damaged hair
- Abdominal pain
- Missed periods (in females)
- Low blood pressure
Emotional Symptoms of Anorexia
Anorexia is rarely a physical condition, only. Instead, it tends to involve an emotional component, too. People with this condition often associate body weight with self-worth. They think confidence will only come if the scale reaches a certain point, no matter which extremely uncomfortable health conditions it takes to get there.
Emotional and behavioral signs you may notice include:
- Severely restricting food intake (e.g. dieting or fasting)
- Voluntarily eliminating food (e.g. vomiting, laxatives, enemas, diet products)
- Exercising obsessively
- Preoccupation with food (e.g. preparing intricate meals for others but not partaking)
- Making excuses for not eating
- Refusing to eat in public
- Denying hunger
- Wearing many layers of clothing
- Flat, non-interested attitude
- Constantly checking the mirror and obsessing about being fat
These are only a few of the many signs that someone with anorexia may exhibit. If you have a loved one you are worried about, encourage them to see a doctor or enroll in a treatment program.
Gone are the days when treatment meant a sterile, generic environment that lacked the amenities required to keep patients comfortable. Today, you can find facilities with luxurious accommodations, such as the residential treatment program at Virtue Recovery, that make the idea of getting help more attractive and accessible. These programs are designed to take the stigma out of recovery and make the process as comfortable as possible.
Despite the array of options available, keep in mind that many individuals with this condition will be in denial at first and may refuse this request. Stay consistently present and available to talk when necessary, and seek intervention if their refusal persists while their health deteriorates.
Bulimia Nervosa, or simply bulimia, is a condition that leads people to have frequent, recurring episodes of binge eating, followed by periods of purging.
Binge eating includes consuming unusually large amounts of food in one sitting. These can be healthy foods, as well as sugary, salty, or otherwise unhealthy ones. When people with bulimia give in to the urge to binge eat, which brings pleasure for a short while. Yet, soon thereafter, that feeling will give way to intense feelings of shame and guilt.
To compensate and restore their feelings of self-control, they will then force their bodies to get rid of the food. This can lead to a variety of different behaviors, such as:
- Forced vomiting
- Excessively using diuretics and laxatives
- Exercising excessively
These behaviors may also be combined. At first, you may not detect them, especially as both binging and purging tend to happen in private.
Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa
Unlike anorexia, the symptoms of bulimia aren’t always physically apparent. Someone with this condition may appear slightly underweight, or normal weight, or may even be overweight.
Still, there are signs to look out for, especially if the individual has verbally expressed frustration over their weight or is acting differently than usual. The most common symptoms include:
- Chronic sore throat
- Worn and damaged tooth enamel
- Sensitive, decaying teeth
- Swollen salivary glands (especially around the neck and jaw)
- Gastrointestinal problems (e.g. acid reflux disorder, irritation)
- Severe dehydration
- Imbalanced electrolytes
Many of these symptoms are linked to forced vomiting. As stomach acid continues to unnaturally come up through the person’s throat, it can damage their throat, teeth, and stomach. Some issues, such as an electrolyte imbalance, can lead to serious health conditions, including a heart attack or stroke.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) was formerly called a restrictive eating disorder. People with ARFID will severely limit the amount of food intake. While this might sound like anorexia, the difference with ARFID is that individuals with this condition do not have a distorted body image and are also unafraid of gaining weight.
Instead, food intake restricts because they simply do not like or are afraid to try certain foods. This condition tends to affect people earlier in life and is most common around middle childhood. Children with ARFID often lack the calories and nutrients needed to grow properly.
Symptoms of ARFID
Both children and adults can suffer from ARFID. The symptoms to look for include:
- Lack of appetite
- Lack of interest in food
- Severely limiting food to only certain types or amounts
- Gastrointestinal issues (e.g. upset stomach, acid reflux)
- Picky eating that gets worse over time
Is Someone You Know Suffering From an Eating Disorder?
It can be hard to watch someone you love fall into the throes of an eating disorder. If you believe this might be happening, or if you are struggling with one yourself, there is help available.
The first step is to seek the help and support of a trusted physician. A medical expert can connect the individual with an appropriate treatment center, dietician, or rehabilitation facility. If the person refuses to acknowledge their condition or get help for it, a doctor will also have resources to help stage a gentle, effective intervention.
Reaching out is critical, and you don’t have to do it alone. Plug into your local resources, stay diligent, and help your loved one find the quality of life they need and deserve.