Eating disorders are mental illnesses that are characterized by abnormal eating behaviours. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), the three most common types are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa happens when a person becomes heavily invested in keeping their body weight extremely low. This is done by restricting their food intake and/or exercising obsessively. They may feel overweight even if they are seriously underweight, which exacerbates the problem. Restricting food can have severe consequences on a person’s body, as it can cause “heart and kidney problems, low blood iron, bone loss, digestive problems, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and fertility problems in women.”
Bulimia nervosa consists of periods of excessive eating followed by periods of purging (eliminating ingested food through methods such as vomiting and using laxatives). Like people affected by anorexia, people with bulimia may feel overweight regardless of their actual weight. It can cause health problems such as kidney problems, dehydration, and digestive problems, while vomiting can damage a person’s teeth, mouth, and throat.
Binge-eating disorder involves periods of over-eating. People who are affected by this disorder may feel like they can’t control how much they eat, and feel distressed, depressed, or guilty after bingeing. For these reasons, many often keep their bingeing habits a secret. Bingeing often has a comforting effect on those who engage in it, and it can sometimes develop following dieting periods. In turn, some people turn to dieting or fasting after binge-eating episodes or periods. It can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes as well as cause high blood pressure and weight problems.
It must be noted that eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other kind of personal identifier. Having said that, people who experience lower self-esteem or poor body image, perfectionism, or difficulties dealing with stress may be more likely to experience an eating disorder.
Though weight loss and gain are commonly associated with these disorders, they are not the only signs to look out for. Many people who experience an eating disorder may feel unwilling to speak out about their problems for fear of having to gain weight. Others may be afraid to stop binge-eating as it helps them cope with other aspects of their lives. It is therefore very important to observe people who might give away certain signs of having an eating disorder. After all, they are treatable and affected people can recover through counselling and—if necessary—medication to treat mood instability that sometimes come with eating disorders.
When approaching someone with an eating disorder in an effort to help them, remember to focus on supporting and understanding rather than controlling their eating habits and behaviour. The CMHA lists the following helpful tips:
- Remember that eating disorders are a sign of much bigger problems. Avoid focusing on food or eating habits alone.
- Be mindful of your own attitudes and behaviours around food and body image.
- Never force someone to change their eating habits or trick someone into changing.
- Avoid reacting to a loved one’s body image talk or trying to reason with statements that seem unrealistic to you.
- If your loved one is an adult, remember that supporting help-seeking is a balance between your own concerns and their right to privacy.
- If your loved one’s experiences are affecting other family members, family counselling may be helpful
- Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and seek support for yourself.
Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) serves as a portal to a number of resources across the country for people who experience eating disorders. They also staff a toll-free helpline at 1-866-633-4220 (416-340-4156 in Toronto/GTA).
If you would like to share your story with eating disorders, feel free to leave a comment on this blog post (anonymously if you wish) or on its related Facebook post!