We all have a regular relationship with food and we’re increasingly aware of what we eat. But there is a line between being aware of your food and being obsessive about it in an unhealthy way. The question is: How do you know when that line has been crossed?
The difference between normal eating and what might be an eating disorder is the emotional connection a person has with his or her food.
Sometimes we eat too much; sometimes we finish a meal and are still hungry. Maybe a snack because we’re bored, or having an extra dessert because it’s there.
When you’re a “normal” eater, these are occasional occurrences. Everyone has different eating habits, but people typically adjust these according to schedule, activity levels, mood.
For someone with an eating disorder, food becomes a major focus and can prevent him or her from enjoying life. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Center, people who develop eating disorders often feel powerless; controlling their eating helps to numb their emotions or provides a false sense of control. It actually has very little to do with food; eating disorders are a mental health problem.
There are three common types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED).
Anorexia nervosa (or “anorexia”) is a disorder where someone essentially starves themselves; they are unable to maintain a healthy body weight but feel “fat” regardless of actual appearance. Often anorexics are preoccupied by food - calorie and fat content, recipes, even cooking for other people - but have an intense fear of gaining weight. It can also lead to extreme levels of exercise. This is the most fatal type of eating disorder.
Bulimia nervosa (or “bulemia”) causes “binge and purge” behaviour, and is often paired with anorexia. A bulimic regularly overeats (binges), then feels guilt or loss of control and purges - for example, by vomiting or taking laxatives - to rid themselves of the calories. It often has no impact on body weight and may happen in secret, so it can be difficult for someone else to notice. Symptoms may include compulsive exercising, visits to the bathroom shortly after eating, and evidence of things like laxatives or diet pills.
Binge eating disorder (or “compulsive eating”) is when someone eats a large quantity of food in a short period of time. It may be paired with bulimia, and sometimes occurs after a strict diet ends. What sets binge eating apart from ‘normal’ overeating is the emotional reaction; a binge eater may feel like a failure because of his or her compulsive eating, or an extreme sense of guilt. It’s also not a one-time occurrence, but something that happens repeatedly over a period of time; left untreated, it can have a serious physical impact.
Anybody can develop an eating disorder. Females are impacted more than males; in adolescents and adults, the ratio is estimated to be 10 women to every man. Adolescents are most likely to develop eating disorders, but children under 12 are increasingly at risk; in a study of five-year-old girls, a significant number associated a diet with food restriction, weight-loss and thinness.
Because it can be difficult to distinguish between normal behaviour and a serious disorder, if you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know ask your doctor for help and more information. A doctor will not only ensure proper treatment, but also rule out any causes that may create similar symptoms. Or you can contact BridgeCross for more eating disorder support.