Eating Disorders – what are they?
There is no such thing as ‘normal eating’. We all have different eating habits which appear ‘normal’ to us. There are many factors that help you decide what is ‘normal’ for you.
Typical ‘normal’ behavours include:
- one large meal a day
- two, three or four meals per day
- lots of small snacks
- and many variations on these themes.
There are many things that can affect your ‘normal’ eating pattern:
- Pressure and stress affect people in different ways. Some may go off their food other may feel they want to eat more, (comfort eating)
- Sometimes you may crave a particular food (such as chocolate); maybe at certain times of the month
- Illness may cause you not to eat at all or little for a period of time.
Most people get back into their ‘normal’ eating behaviours soon after.
Some people can eat large amounts of food and not gain weight whilst others eat much less and can gain weight.
If someone eats too much or too little over a long period of time they could have a problem with eating. Or are developing a full blown eating disorder.
If food is becoming increasingly important in your life. So much so that it dominates your thoughts. And becomes the most important thing in your life, you have an eating disorder.
Do you do any of the following?
- Deny yourself food, even when you are very hungry,
- Snack or pick when not hungry
- Binge even when full
- You find that food is on your mind all the time
- How much you weigh is on your mind all the time
- Food feels like an addiction and starts
- Food is affecting your quality of life
A food addiction or hating eating creates a huge problem – you need to eat food to live. Therefore; you have no choice but to battle with the problem daily.
Types of Eating Disorders
A sufferer must understand that eating disorders aren’t just about food and eating or not eating. Eating disorders are also usually about difficult problems and painful emotions, which are difficult to face, talk about or resolve. The eating disorders people have are usually a way of hiding these problems.
Eating disorders are characterised by severe disturbances in eating behaviour. The practice of an eating disorder can be viewed as a survival mechanism. Just as an alcoholic uses alcohol to cope, people with eating disorders can use overeating, purging or restricting food to ‘deal’ with their problems. The practice of an eating disorder may be an expression of something that the eating disordered individual has found no other way of expressing.
What causes eating disorders?
Some of the underlying issues that are associated with eating disorders include:
- Low self-esteem
- Self image issues – body dismorphic disorder
- Feelings of loss of control
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Identity concerns
- Family communication problems
- Inability to cope with emotions
Other reasons are looked at in more detail below.
There is almost never just one cause in the development of eating disorders. There are usually multiple causes, which may be to do with the person’s personality, past experiences and current situation.
Your personality will be a big factor in determining your vulnerability. The following characteristics make you more vulnerable to eating disorders:
- Perfectionism – rarely having satisfaction with what you have achieved. You feel you can always do better
- Being over competitive – want to be the best at everything
- Obsessive compulsive behaviour
- Have difficulties expressing yourself to others
Family life and relationships
Eating problem often start in childhood or may become worse due to childhood experiences. If the sufferer had parents that were strict disciplinarians or overbearing. They may have felt they had no control over their life.
So; they started to use food regulation as a way of gaining some control over their life. Others may have a family where there was a strong focus on food. Either large portions as a way of showing ‘love’ or always on a strict healthy diet.
In most cases the family of the eating disorder sufferer have difficulties in understanding the problems. They often place extra pressure on the sufferer to eat ‘normally’. This makes the problem worse.
It is possible that people can inherit a gene that makes eating problems more likely. There is evidence of higher concordance rates in some families – but it could also be down to learned behaviour.
A stressful event or trauma is often the trigger for the onset of an eating disorder:
- physical, mental or sexual abuse
- the death of someone close – relative or friend
- Serious family issues – parents getting divorced, one sent to prison
- Pressures at school – exams, homework, coursework deadlines
- Pressures at work – long hours, project deadlines
- Starting a new school or new job – promotion
- Puberty – hormone and body shape changes
- Sexual issues
To other people the eating disorder looks like it has just appeared from nowhere. Often with no obvious cause.
People may have underlying issues with their physical or mental health that they can do nothing about. So they may also develop eating problems. This is because eating is something that they can have control of.
The media and fittness
All around are images of ‘perfect’ people being on TV and in magazines. The women are expected to be thin and men lean but muscular. In fact many of the women are undernourished and the men have unhealthily low levels of body fat.
Children as well as adults are bombarded with these images. They are even built into games and toys. There is a perceived pressure from society to conform to an unhealthy idea of perfection. This can make eating problems develop into full blown eating disorders.
It is becoming more and more acceptable for over-dieting and over-exercising to appear normal. This often begins to dominate people’s lives. Many sufferers of Anorexia nervosa exercise far too much.
What should I do?
If you feel you are developing an eating problem then getting help early on is very important.
You may wish to see your GP. They can check that symptoms, (weight loss or gain), are not due to an underlying physical condition.
If there is no such underlying condition causing the problem the eating problem needs to be treated ASAP before it gets a strong hold on you. Treatment is usually through changing both your eating pattern and addressing the emotions behind it.