Disordered Eating: It's More Common Than You Think

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People often think of eating disorders as a coming-of-age issue that primarily affects teenaged girls. The reality is, eating disorders affect people across a variety of cultures, backgrounds and age groups. An estimated 30 million Americans of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder.

"Eating disorders are a mental illness that affects a person's ability to properly nourish themselves," explains Shiseida Beeler, a registered dietitian and health educator at Henry Ford Health System. "While psychological factors play a key role in the development of eating disorders, the consequences of such abnormal eating patterns can take a physical toll as well." In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Types Of Eating Disorders

Disordered eating falls on a spectrum and takes different forms. People who suffer from eating disorders may exhibit several different kinds of disordered eating, even within the span of 24 hours.

While there are several different types of eating disorders, these three are the most common:

  1. Anorexia nervosa: With anorexia nervosa, people restrict their food intake out of an intense fear of gaining weight. "People who suffer from anorexia often have something called body dysmorphia, where the view they have of their body doesn't mesh with reality," Beeler says. "These individuals may experience dramatic weight loss and maintain an excessive exercise regimen, no matter what the obstacle, to maintain their weight."
  2. Bulimia nervosa: People who have bulimia nervosa engage in a cycle of binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting. "Some people who have bulimia take laxatives and exercise excessively to compensate for the excess calories,” Beeler says. People who have bulimia may experience dental problems like enamel erosion, cavities and tooth discoloration as a result of frequent vomiting.
  3. Binge eating disorder: Binge eating disorder looks similar to bulimia nervosa, but without any compensatory purging behaviors to undo the overeating. "People who suffer from binge eating disorder may feel unable to stop eating, even after consuming a quantity of food that's much larger than most individuals would eat under similar circumstances," Beeler says. "They may also feel disgust or guilt after overeating and have low self-esteem."

The Physical Consequences Of Disordered Eating

Eating disorders can take a tremendous toll on the body. "Nutritional deficiencies can lead to myriad health problems that can cause the entire body to break down and malfunction," Beeler says.

A few of the most common problems that arise from an eating disorder:

  • Malnutrition, or nutrient inadequacy (this can happen whether a person is underweight, overweight or obese)
  • Impaired cognition, such as poor concentration, memory loss and impaired speech
  • Digestion problems, including constipation and impaired nutrient absorption
  • Skin disorders, including dry, flaky skin and poor wound healing
  • Stunted and defective bone growth

Signs And Symptoms Of An Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are remarkably common. They're not something to be ashamed of. Getting help for disordered eating patterns can not only help sidestep physical complications, such as nutrient deficiencies and malnourishment, but it could also help improve quality of life.

So, how do you know if someone you love is suffering? Beyond frequent weigh-ins and bathroom trips, there are emotional and physical signs that emerge when someone has an eating disorder.

Emotional

  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbs, fat grams and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods, restriction against whole categories of food (no carb, no fat)
  • Food rituals
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and social activity
  • Extreme concern with body size
  • Intense mood swings
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for flaws

Physical

  • Frequent illness
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Noticeable weight fluctuation
  • Stomach cramps and gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, bloating, bacterial overgrowth in gut)
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep problems
  • Dry skin and hair, brittle nails

"The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has an online eating disorder screening tool that assesses warning signs of an eating disorder and help you determine if it is time to seek professional help," Beeler says. "But, it's important to note that this screening tool is not a replacement for clinical evaluation."

Eating disorders are complex and many individuals require comprehensive treatment, including psychological and nutritional services.

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To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Sayde Beeler, MSW, RDN, specializes in nutrition counseling and health coaching for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Categories: EatWell