When does normal nutrition become an eating disorder?
Nurses and midwives know the value of healthy nutrition, but even health professionals can become obsessive about body image and what they consume. This behaviour pattern can develop into an eating disorder.
Eating disorders incorporate extreme patterns of eating and exercising that interfere with normal functioning. They can manifest as eating very small amounts, or eating erratically. The person with an eating disorder constantly ruminates and worries about food, body weight and appearance.
The three most common eating disorders are:
- anorexia nervosa,
- bulimia nervosa, and
- binge eating disorder.
Why do some people develop an eating disorder?
There are multiple reasons why eating disorders occur. Research has deduced that eating disorders are due to a range of factors:
- biological - the way your brain works,
- genetic - familial,
- psychological - how you think and feel,
- social - your relationships, or
- cultural - the customs and values of those around you. Girls and women are more at risk of developing an eating disorder than boys and men.
The following are risk factors for developing an eating disorder:
- living in a culture where being thin is highly valued,
- migrating from a developing country to a western culture,
- activities or careers where body image is a focus (fashion models, professional dancers, athletes),
- strict dieting and body dissatisfaction,
- experiencing loneliness, low self-esteem or depression,
- being a perfectionist,
- being impulsive or having difficulty managing emotions,
- experiencing stressful life changes, and
- history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Behaviours to be mindful of:
- being fearful of putting on weight and constant weighing,
- thinking about food all the time, or feeling anxious at every meal,
- gradually restricting how much food is eaten,
- overeating uncontrollably or feeling out of control around food,
- hoarding food to ‘binge’ later,
- purging after eating,
- taking laxatives to reduce weight,
- worrying excessively about how you look and constantly checking in a mirror,
- avoiding eating with others,
- disguising what, and how much you eat,
- exercising excessively,
- menstrual periods ceasing (for women), or not occurring by age 16,
- feeling sad, anxious, irritable, tired or vague, and
- avoiding group activities and isolating from friends and family.
Even if you don’t identify as thin, you may still have an eating disorder if you experience some of the symptoms listed. Eating disorders occur in both males and females of any age.
How are eating disorders managed?
If you have symptoms of an eating disorder, it would be wise to seek help from a health professional, preferably your GP. If eating disorders are left untreated, serious medical problems can arise. If the health professional thinks you have an eating disorder, he or she will refer you to an appropriate eating disorder specialist or service.
Support for eating disorders involves medical and psychological care and treatment, and a healthy eating program. In some cases, hospitalisation and medication are advised. The healthcare team will work with you to decide which combination of care and treatment is best for you.
Most people with an eating disorder recover with treatment, care and time so it’s vital to feel positive about your recovery journey. Symptoms of a pre-existing eating disorder may return, especially during periods of heightened stress. Because of this, it’s important to establish an ongoing relationship with a trusted health professional.