Know the signs of an eating disorder and when to get help

November 17, 2015 | by Fatima Ali, M.D.

Do you have an intense fear of gaining weight? Do you feel bad about your body and go to extremes to control your weight? Many of us have had concerns about our body or weight at one time or another. But for some of us, a real problem develops.

Eating disorders impact millions of people of all ages in this country. Although men and boys can develop the illness, eating disorders primarily affect girls and women. And while the illness most often appears during adolescent years, it is becoming more frequent in younger children and adults.

An eating disorder is a serious, life-threatening medical illness in which food, weight and appearance become obsessions. These obsessions start to disrupt daily life and physical health, yet many people with eating disorders may not recognize the severity of the situation.

Here are common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa – the restriction of food resulting in severe weight loss. Although clearly underweight, many people with anorexia still see themselves as overweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa – a cycle of eating unusually large amounts of food followed by purging behavior. The behavior is usually done secretly and is accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame. People with bulimia usually maintain a normal weight or are slightly overweight.
  • Binge eating disorder – frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food, but without the purging behaviors. People with binge eating disorder often experience guilt or shame about their behavior, and are often overweight or obese.
  • Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) – signs of disordered eating are present but the illness does not meet all of the criteria for a specific disorder.

Sometimes it’s easy to recognize someone with an eating disorder if they have a dramatically frail appearance. But eating disorders can also reveal themselves in more subtle ways. While people with this illness display a range of symptoms, early warning signs may include: skipping meals, changes in eating habits, poor body image, excessive exercise, and leaving meals to use the bathroom for long periods.

Over time, other symptoms of an eating disorder may include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Thinning of the bones
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and blotchy skin
  • Fine body hair
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women
  • Severe constipation
  • Calloused knuckles
  • Swollen or puffy cheeks
  • Low body temperature, feeling cold all the time
  • Anemia, muscle wasting and weakness
  • Lethargy, sluggishness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Worn tooth enamel, decaying teeth
  • Acid reflux or GI problems
  • Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance
  • Infertility
  • Damage to the heart and brain

Eating disorders are real, treatable illnesses, but recovery is not as simple as eating normally. As signs and symptoms persist, the behaviors become more rooted and more difficult to treat. Also, eating disorders often coexist with other illnesses, such as depression and anxiety disorders. To be effective, treatment needs to address these underlying issues as well.

How do you know if you’re at risk for an eating disorder? Start by asking yourself the following questions. Do you:

  • Go to extremes to manage your weight?
  • Weigh yourself repeatedly?
  • Portion your food carefully?
  • Eat very small quantities of only certain foods?
  • Engage in binge-eating?
  • Exercise excessively or panic when you miss a day of exercise?
  • Have negative or obsessive thoughts about your body?
  • Make yourself vomit?
  • Misuse laxatives or diuretics?
  • Feel intensely shy or fearful about eating in public?
  • Have feelings of shame, guilt or disgust about your eating habits?
  • Feel out of control when eating?
  • Eat in secret?

If you answered yes to some of these, or if you’re concerned that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, don’t ignore it. The sooner an eating disorder is treated, the easier the recovery. You aren’t alone, and help for eating disorders is available in many different forms.

The first step to feeling better is identifying the problem. Take our free, confidential behavioral health assessment.

Fatima Ali, MD is a psychiatrist at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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