Mental Health Conditions

Eating Disorders

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What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a serious mental health condition with high mortality rates. Typically associated with unhealthy behaviours relating to food and exercise, eating disorders can affect individuals of any age, gender or background. Understanding eating disorders are key to supporting someone in recovery, or seeking help yourself. Outlined below are some common eating disorders, and treatment options.

Anorexia Nervosa

Restriction of energy intake, causing significantly low body weight

Individuals with Anorexia experience an obsessive fear of gaining weight, persistent unhealthy behaviours to avoid weight gain and a distorted view of one’s body. 

The two main subtypes of Anorexia include:

  • Restricting subtype: individuals place extreme restrictions on amount and type of food consumed, usually accompanied by overexercise 
  • Binge eating/purging subtype: restrictive eating accompanied by recurrent episodes of binge eating and/or purging

Some common symptoms of Anorexia include: 

  • Obsession over body image
  • Excessive behaviours to lose weight (dieting, fasting, over exercising, using laxatives)
  • Secretive behaviours around food 
  • Sudden or rapid weight loss 
  • Fainting or dizziness 
  • Loss or disturbance of menstruation cycles in women 

If left untreated and in severe cases, Anorexia can cause a weakened heart, leading to cardiovascular effects such as hypotension and arrhythmias. Other consequences include weakened immune system, anemia, kidney failure and potentially permanent fertility issues.

Bulimia Nervosa

Recurrent episodes of binge eating, immediately followed by purging, overexercise, fasting or misuse of laxatives 

Individuals with Bulimia consume an abnormally large amount of food within a short period of time (approximately two hours), followed by feelings of shame and guilt that prompt unhealthy compensatory behaviours. This cycle occurs on average at least one a week for three months. 

Bulimia differs from the binge eating/purging subtype of Anorexia in that individuals maintain a relatively healthy weight range.

Some common symptoms of Bulimia include: 

  • Weight fluctuations 
  • Vomiting or excessive use of weight loss supplements 
  • Eating in private and avoiding meals with other people 
  • Frequent bathroom use after meals 
  • Over exercising 
  • Preoccupation with weight, eating and body image 
  • Fainting or dizziness 
  • Irregular menstrual cycles 

If left untreated, Bulimia can cause chronic sore throat, reflux and indigestion. In extreme cases, individuals may be at risk of a ruptured oesophagus or stomach, dental problems and stomach and intestinal ulcers.

Binge eating disorder

Recurrent episodes of binge eating

Individuals with Binge eating disorder consume an abnormally large amount of food during a specified time (approximately two hours), and often report a sense of loss of control during such episodes. Episodes occur on average at least once a week for three months. Binge eating disorder is not associated with the compensatory behaviours that are seen in Anorexia and Bulimia. 

Some common symptoms of Binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating faster than normal 
  • Eating past the sense of fullness
  • Eating large amounts of food in the lack of hunger cues
  • Prefering to eat alone 
  • Consuming feelings of disgust, shame or guilt after an episode 

If left untreated, individuals with binge eating disorder are at an increased risk of developing type two diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. These may then increase chances of stroke or heart disease.

Treatment options 

If you recognise signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, it is best to seek professional medical treatment. Eating disorders are a treatable illness and recovery is possible. Treatment may include: 

  • Restoring nutrition and a healthy weight. Individuals must adhere to a tailored meal plan, and learn about normal eating patterns. 
  • Psychologists administer psychological treatments such as CBT, and implement strategies to combat low self-esteem or poor body image. 
  • Family therapy is especially useful for children or adolescents with an eating disorder. Family members are involved in helping an individual adhere to their meal plan in a home environment.
  • Dieticians provide education around healthy eating.
  • Psychiatrists may administer antidepressants when necessary.
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