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What is an Eating Disorder? Important Signs and Symptoms

Having an eating disorder can be debilitating because it takes away your time, energy, and focus. A serious eating disorder can prevent you from fully living the emotional, social, and physical dimensions of life. If you think you might have an eating disorder, it’s vital to understand the symptoms and get support as soon as possible.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are abnormal, disordered patterns of eating or consistently and deliberately starving yourself. Generally this pattern has to be consistent over a period of time in order to be considered an eating disorder. Because they’re persistent, eating disorders can present serious health risks, and so they need to be treated as soon as possible.

Note – skipping meals, overeating, dieting, and comfort eating aren’t eating disorders in themselves. Having a poor relationship with food doesn’t necessarily mean you have an eating disorder.

Types of eating disorders

The three common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

  • Anorexia nervosa – People with anorexia nervosa may diet and exercise excessively. They starve themselves and feel as though they can’t be thin enough. Even though they may be severely underweight, they still see themselves as overweight. Symptoms include fatigue, brittle nails and hair, and fine hair on the body and face.
  • Bulimia nervosa – People with bulimia nervosa overeat to an extreme degree before purging what they’ve eaten. They typically feel like they have no control over their eating. Common symptoms include abnormal bowel functions, teeth and gum damage, sores in the mouth, and inflammation of the oesophagus.
  • Binge eating disorder – People with binge eating disorder regularly overeat to an extreme degree. Like bulimia and anorexia, binge eating disorder is accompanied with a sense of loss of control over eating.

Do you have an eating disorder? Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary depending on the individual. However, typically the person will be secretive and attempt to hide their disorder.  

Behavioural

Common behavioural symptoms include excessive exercising and purging or vomiting. They might be fanatical about exercising, even when injured. In some cases those with an eating disorder will diet excessively with fasting or undereating. The dieting tends to happen constantly and repeatedly.

It’s not unusual for people with eating disorders to be secretive or even misleading about food and eating habits. They might prefer to eat in private and show signs of struggling to deal with food when no other people are around.

Some people with eating disorders will have fixed rituals, such as relating to time or presentation of food, which they refuse to deviate from. They might rely on prescription medications like Adderall to suppress their appetite.

They tend to be extremely sensitive about comments about their body shape and size, and they might wear baggy clothes to hide their figure. Some people with an eating disorder will withdraw from friends and family, especially when questioned about their eating habits.

Physical

Common physical symptoms include rapid weight loss, weight fluctuation, ceasing of menstruation, irritability, and tiredness. The weight loss and/or purging can lead to damaged teeth, mouth, and throat. The person might have swollen cheeks, calluses on their knuckles, and bad breath.

Some people experience sensitivity to cold even in hot weather, and in extreme cases they’ll be susceptible to fatigue, fainting, or dizziness due to poor nutrition.

Psychological

People experiencing an eating disorder tend to be preoccupied with food. They might spend a lot of time hiding, avoiding, or obtaining food. They’ll usually be overly concerned with body shape, size, weight gain, and weight loss.

It’s common for those with eating disorders to have a distorted body image. They might see themselves as overweight when they’re not. Often, they’ll feel like they have no control when dealing with food. They might use food to comfort, punish, or regulate themselves in some way.

Causes and treatment

Eating disorders tend to be more common in girls and women, but they can develop in anyone. While exact causes can vary, eating disorders are associated with psychological and medical problems such as poor self-esteem, anxiety, and substance abuse. Becoming obsessive about food can manifest as an attempt to gain control of your life.

Recognising you have an eating disorder is an important first step. Treatment options can range from physical health management and nutritional counselling to mental health management and psychotherapy. Other ways to support your healing journey could include self-education, support  , and drug treatment. Timely treatment is vital, so consult a qualified therapist about your symptoms if you think you might have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, and their symptoms usually reveal an extremely preoccupation with food. Because eating disorders can have serious long-term effects, it’s crucial to get professional support and advice as soon as possible. The Centre for Human Potential has qualified psychologists in Brisbane who can support you with empathetic, compassionate advice to help you overcome an eating disorder. Contact us for a confidential discussion today.