It is difficult to say exactly what "normal eating" is as every single one of us has different eating habits. Some of us have three
meals a day while others snack throughout the day.
Some people eat more at night while others are hungry
in the morning. These eating styles are all normal
and help us maintain good nutritional health. From
time to time our eating patterns and habits may change
due to a variety of factors including personal reasons,
wanting to eat healthier foods, holidays etc. Our
eating is also affected when we feel under pressure
We may feel that we eat significantly more or less.
We may crave certain foods such as chocolate or crisps.
After the stressful time has passed, however, we normally
return to our usual eating habits. If we do not go back to our normal eating habits after a
period of time, we may be in danger of developing
eating disorders. This is when food becomes a central
of our everyday lives in that we eat too much or
too little, we may constantly worry about our weight
when food is the first thing on our minds
. It is important
though to realise that this constant worry is not
just about food or weight but about difficulties in
lives that we cannot control. At their core, eating
disorders involve distorted, self-critical attitudes
about food, weight and body image. It is these negative
thoughts and feelings
that fuel the damaging behaviours. People with eating
disorders use food to deal with uncomfortable or
painful emotions, restricting food as a method of gaining control.
Overeating temporarily soothes sadness, anger or loneliness.
Purging is used to combat feelings of helplessness
and self-loathing. Over time people with eating disorders
lose the ability to see themselves objectively and
obsessions over food and weight come to dominate everything
in life. Eating disorders are complex, life-threatening conditions that can affect anyone.
People experiencing an eating disorder may experience the following characteristics:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty expressing needs
- Difficulty talking about problems
- Extreme concern with body image
- Mood swings
Types of eating disorders
There are three main types of eating disorders. These are:
Anorexia - People with anorexia restrict food out of an intense fear of becoming fat.
They will be preoccupied with thoughts of food and
the need to lose weight. They may also exercise excessively,
use diet pills and may engage in purging behaviours.
Anorexia most commonly occurs amongst adolescent girls
and young women in the early twenties. However, an increased incidence of anorexia has been noted
amongst young men and children.
Bulimia involves a cycle of overeating and binging followed by behaviours aimed at compensating
for the binges. These include fasting, forced vomiting,
use of diet pills and laxatives and excessive exercise.
Most people with bulimia maintain a body weight within
the healthy range for their age, sex and height. As a result people with bulimia can keep the condition
a secret for longer.
Binge Eating Disorder involves compulsive overeating but without purging. Despite feelings of shame
and guilt over these secret binges, people with the
disorder feel unable to control their behaviour or
stop eating when they are uncomfortably full. Over
time binge eating disorder can result in significant weight gain. Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be as common amongst men as
What causes eating disorders?
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the development of an eating
disorder. The cause is related to a combination of
factors including biological, familial and sociocultural
factors that combine to increase vulnerability to developing
an eating disorder. Some other suggested factors include
Social pressure: In a time when beauty is perceived and advertised alongside slim models and
celebrities, it can sometimes be difficult to see the
two as separate issues. Newspapers, films and magazines
all falsely depict slimness as beauty. As a result,
many people are influenced to desire this idealised
body shape that is often unrealistic and unhealthy.
Control: We often lead lives that are influenced by many factors outside of our control.
Weight loss and the feeling of control associated with
it can make us feel good.
Stress: It is common for an eating disorder to develop after a period of great stress
in a person's life e.g. life difficulties, physical illness, upsetting events, sexual abuse.
The distress felt will relate not only to the current
upset but also to a store of past upsets that have
never been expressed.
Low self-esteem: For some people, losing weight can be perceived as a method of obtaining a degree
of self-respect and self-worth.
Warning signs of eating disorders
Most people will have times when they feel conscious about their weight or body
image. This is especially true for teenagers and young
adults who face extra perceived pressure to fit in
and look attractive when their bodies are changing.
So it can be difficult to pick up on the early signs
of an eating disorder but as the disorder progresses
the warning signs are present even though the person
with the eating disorder may try to hide their condition.
Some of the most common eating disorder warning sign
include the following:
Restricting food or dieting by skipping meals, taking very small portions and counting calories.
Bingeing: especially late at night in a private hiding place. Other signs of bingeing
include empty food wrappers and packaging and hidden
stashes of high calorie foods.
Purging: for example throwing up, fasting, excessive exercising or using diuretics or
laxatives. Common behavioural signs include leaving
the table to go to the toilet straight after a meal,
running water while in the bathroom to muffle the sound
and the constant use of mints, mouthwash and perfume.
Altered appearance as a result of substantial weight loss or weight gain. A person with an eating
disorder may also wear baggy clothes to disguise weight
loss or as a result of their belief that they are overweight.
What is the treatment for eating disorders?
There are many different treatment plans for individuals dealing with eating
disorders. These treatment options will vary depending
on the individual's needs, symptoms and severity of eating disorder. All treatment options will
aim to treat the physical and psychological aspects
of the condition. Elements of a treatment programme
could include the following:
- Residential care, e.g. if the severity of the condition poses serious threats
to the person's life.
- Nutritional advice around obtaining and maintaining healthy diet and healthy
eating for overall health and well-being.
- Psychotherapy - this involves the exploration of underlying causes of the problem
and developing healthy ways to deal with stressful
events and methods to rebuild self-esteem and confidence.
- Support groups where peers can give support, help and advice.
What should I do if I have an eating disorder?
Overcoming an eating disorder is not just about gaining weight or giving up
unhealthy eating patterns. Overcoming an eating disorder
is about learning to listen to your body, to your feelings,
learning to trust, accept and love yourself. In order
to do that the followings steps are useful.
Find an eating disorder specialist. Contact Bodywhys (1890 200 444) for a list of GPs with a special interest in
Address urgent health problems first then tackle underlying emotional issues.
Contact an eating disorder support group for peer support on dealing with your condition and emotional support in the
form of understanding and advice.
Learn new coping skills - eating disorders are more about emotional issues than food. Disordered eating
is a coping mechanism to deal with painful emotions
such as anger, self-loathing, fear, guilt and vulnerability.
You can learn new coping strategies when you feel painful
emotions. Pick a healthier coping strategy that suits
you such as writing your thoughts in a diary,having
a healthy amount of exercise, painting or listening
Try to improve your self-image - when you base your self-worth on physical appearance and body size alone you
fail to see the other qualities that make you who you
are. In order to positively influence your self-worth:
- Make a list of your positive qualities; ask your friends and family to help
- Challenge negative self-talk. See the module on noticing unhelpful thinking in
the "Self Help" to help with this task.
- Focus on what you like about yourself and your body.
Learn healthy eating habits - this may be difficult if you have spent a good amount of time focussing on
calories and weight but is a very important step in
recovery from eating disorders. Try to eat foods that
you like and make meals an enjoyable part of the day
by spending them with family or friends or in a location
Identify your triggers - if possible learn to identify situations that make you want to revert back to
unhealthy eating patterns. Once you notice these triggers,
have a plan in place that gives you extra support.
This could be attending a support group more often,
talking with family or friends or writing your thoughts
in a diary.
How can you help a friend or family member who has an eating disorder?
Learn about eating disorders so you can understand the struggles and difficulties your friend or family member
is going through. Have patience and compassion; there
is no quick fix for eating disorders but encouragement
will impact positively.
Be a good role model for healthy living and eating
Accept your limitations
Take care of your own health
For more information on eating disorders and support contact, Bodywhys on 1890