Eating Disorder Signs and Symptoms
In the late 1970s, Karen Carpenter was half of one of the most successful musical groups touring the country. She had a significant amount of money, a huge base of adoring fans, a tight bond with her family and a series of romantic relationships. On the outside, it might have seemed as though she had everything a person could possibly want. On the inside, however, she was struggling, and she chose not to discuss it. Instead, as her brother told People magazine, she controlled what she ate. Some days, she ate only salad or toast. Some foods were declared off-limits for good. Despite these strict controls on her diet, she seemed cheerful and happy on the outside, often not discussing either her weight or the way she felt about her life. The consequence of the disorder was easy to see, however. Her weight dropped to 80 pounds at one point, and the disease eventually took her life in 1982.
Karen Carpenter’s story may have a dire outcome, but a lot has changed since 1982. For starters, more people know about eating disorders, and they’re willing to talk to people who might have the disorders and encourage them to get help. If Karen Carpenter were alive today, it’s possible that she’d be surrounded by people advising her to get help, and when she did, she might have improved and gone on to live a long life. If you have an eating disorder, you might be able to do the same.
*The Influence of the Media
Cultural influences can also have a serious impact on the progression of eating disorders. Each day, you’re subjected to television shows, magazine covers and billboard advertisements showing people that are impossibly thin. You might know that designers use specific tools to manipulate these images to make people appear slimmer than they really are yet your subconscious may record these images with sparkling clarity, and when you look in the mirror, your body can’t possibly look like the bodies you’ve seen in those photos. An eating disorder can quickly take hold due to the conflict between what you see in the mirror and what the culture tells you beauty should look like.
An Issue of Control
There are many different types of eating disorders and they all have their own signs and symptoms, but in essence, eating disorders are considered issues of control. People with eating disorders are obsessed with food, and they may use that food in order to work out problems they’re having in other areas of their lives. A study produced by the University of Minnesota might make this a bit easier to understand. In this study, researchers interviewed people with eating disorders in order to determine what made the disorders start. The researchers found that six main factors tended to trigger eating disorders in those people studied:
- Moving to a new school
- Enduring a relationship change
- Death of a family member or friend
- Sexual abuse
- Moving to a new home
- Illness or hospitalization
Going through a change like this could make you feel as though your life is completely out of your control. Many of these things can’t be influenced or changed by anything you say or anything you do, and this could make you feel helpless. In order to take back power, you might choose to focus on your weight or develop rules about what you can and cannot eat. Over time, these behaviors become entrenched and hard to change. The eating disorder has set in.
People with some eating disorders develop an unhealthy relationship with exercise as they try to keep their weight down. While it’s true that exercise can be helpful in boosting mood and toning muscle, people who exercise compulsively have taken a normally healthy behavior and pushed it to an extreme. You might be exercising compulsively if you:
- Exercise even when you’re hurt or in pain
- Must exercise every single day, no matter what
- Want to exercise more on days when you’ve eaten more
- Feel anxious or upset when you can’t exercise
- Prefer to exercise alone, so you can hide how much you exercise
Anorexia is one of the most rare forms of eating disorder, but it might also be the most deadly. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the death rate for people with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate for women in the general population, ages 15 to 24. That’s why it’s so very important for you to get help if you do have anorexia. It could be help that could save your life.
People with anorexia refuse to keep their body weight within 15 percent of what experts declare normal. They do this by refusing to eat, or using laxatives or other means to avoid digesting any food they do eat. Even though people with anorexia are remarkably thin, and it’s easy for outsiders to see that they are much too thin for their height, people with anorexia often believe that they are too heavy. When describing your body, you might use words like “fat,” “chunky” or “heavy.” You might also avoid talking about your body at all, and you might swaddle yourself in thick, loose clothing to hide your shape.
If you have anorexia, you might have a large numbers of rules you obey about food, such as:
- Refusing to eat dairy products or high-fat foods
- Cutting your food into very small bites and pushing it on the plate instead of eating it
- Drinking cola instead of eating
- Congratulating yourself when you can get through the day without eating at all
- Cooking for others, but not eating the meals yourself
As your weight drops, you might feel chilly most, if not all, of the time. You might also grow very fine hairs on your face and belly, as your body attempts to keep warm. You might also feel tired and depressed. Despite your refusal to eat, you might be desperately hungry most, if not all, of the time. Your thoughts might be consumed by food.
*When Do Eating Disorders Appear?
Eating disorders typically strike in adolescence. During this time period, your body is changing remarkably fast, and sometimes, weight gain is associated with that change. Rapid weight gain can be alarming, and it can trigger a latent eating disorder. In addition, many teens intense pressure to fit in and look like everyone else. If you’re the first girl in your class to grow hips, for example, you might be desperate to lose weight to keep those changes from becoming noticeable. Eating disorders aren’t exclusive to adolescence, however. Some adults develop eating disorders during times of extreme stress.
If you have bulimia, you might also desperately want to lose weight, and you might also think of yourself as overweight or even obese. Unlike a person with anorexia, however, you might be at a completely normal weight for your height. In fact, you might be considered slightly overweight. This added weight, despite the work you go through to lose weight could make you incredibly depressed. This low mood is common in people with bulimia, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
People with bulimia may also have rules about what they can and cannot eat throughout the day, but when they’re under periods of stress and they feel as though no one is watching, they may engage in binge eating episodes. You might eat thousands of calories in one sitting, stopping only when you run out of food or your body physically cannot take in any more food. Some people report feeling as though they’re in a trance during a binge like this, and they’re completely unable to control how much they eat. They may not even consciously know that they’re binging. When the binge is over, however, the evidence of the binge is hard to ignore, and often people feel incredibly guilty or sick about what they’ve done. In order to keep from gaining weight from the binge, you might use laxatives to push food through faster, or you might make yourself throw up the food.
While you might think that laxatives and vomiting help to protect you from gaining weight from a binge, the fact is that most calories from food are absorbed amazingly quickly. By the time you begin to vomit, or by the time you use laxatives, a good amount of the calories are already in your system. That’s why you’re unable to lose the weight you’d like to lose.
“I started throwing up at school after lunch because my friends were doing it. They told me it was the only way I could lose weight, and I didn’t want them to make fun of me or exclude me, so I went along. Soon, I found that all I could think about was my weight. I wanted to be thin, but I didn’t want to diet, so I kept throwing up after every meal. And sometimes I got so hungry that I’d eat everything in the kitchen. It was really gross. When my mom noticed that food was always disappearing when I was home alone, I knew I’d been caught. I’m glad. I’m in therapy now, and I’m learning more about how to accept my body as it is. I’m no longer feeling the urge to purge.”
Understanding Binge Eating
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, about 2 percent of all adults in the United States have a binge eating disorder. While women are more often affected by the disorder, men can also be diagnosed. People with binge eating disorders often have many of the same symptoms as people with bulimia. For example, during a binge, you might:
- Eat incredibly fast
- Feel uncomfortable and distended
- Stop only when someone interrupts you or you run out of food
- Focus on sweet or salty foods
- Feel compelled or unable to control your actions
After the binge, you might feel disgusted or ashamed, but you don’t resort to throwing up or using laxatives. The calories all stay within your body, and as a result, you might be quite a bit overweight. Although you might desperately want to lose weight, and you might even try dieting and exercise, you might still be compelled to binge weekly or even daily, and this could undo the weight loss work you’ve done.
*Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified
The medical profession recognizes only three eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. But, some people have eating disorders that don’t fit tidily into one of these three boxes. For example, you might:
- Have all of the symptoms of anorexia, except your weight is considered normal
- Have all of the symptoms of bulimia, except you only binge every four to six months
- Have all of the symptoms of binge eating, except you don’t swallow the food you chew
- Sometimes use starvation and sometimes binge eating, meaning you meet the criteria of two conditions at once
If this happens to you, don’t worry. Treatments for eating disorders are customized to help you overcome your specific relationship with food. You won’t be forced to get therapy aimed for someone else or for problems you don’t have. Your plan will be specific to you.
The treatment you’ll receive for your eating disorder will depend heavily on the type of disorder you have and how well you’re feeling. If you have anorexia, for example, your early therapy time might circle around helping you to gain weight so you’ll feel well enough to participate in therapy. If you have a binge eating disorder, by contrast, you might need help to lose weight, but you might start your therapy to treat the mental disorder right away. These are decisions your doctor, your therapist, you and your family will make together. The entire team will be focused on helping you to get better.
Recovering from an eating disorder can be difficult, as you’ll have both physical and behavioral challenges to overcome, but you can certainly improve with help. Therapies can help you think differently about your body, and medical treatments can help to undo the damage the disorder has done. You can recover. We can help you find a treatment program that can address your eating disorder and lead you toward a healthy, balanced life. Call now.
*Revising Your Relationship With Food
The first step in healing from an eating disorder involves developing new ways of thinking about food. The best way to do this might be to stop thinking about diets altogether. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 95 percent of diets fail, simply because they don’t work. Instead, it’s best to:
- Determine the signals your body uses for hunger.
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Stop eating when you feel content.
- Enjoy each bite of your food.
- Eat the foods that appeal to you.