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Eating disorders are very serious conditions which are characterized by abnormal and persistent eating behaviours which can negatively impact a person's health. Dealing with eating disorders can be very challenging but not impossible to do.

Eating disorders tend to develop in the teenage and young adult years, although it's not uncommon to see them occur at other ages as well. Most eating disorders involve focusing too much time on body shape, weight and food which then leads to dangerous eating habits and behaviours. These behaviours can then significantly impact the body's ability to receive proper nutrition and can lead to damage or injury of the digestive and cardiac systems as well as affect the mouth, teeth and bones.

Management of these disorders can result in the return to healthier eating habits as well as possible reversal of serious complications.

Types of eating disorders

The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Other eating disorders include rumination disorder, pica and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

Anorexia nervosa, or simply anorexia, is potentially life-threatening and is characterized by an extremely low body weight, a distorted perception of shape or weight and an intense fear of gaining weight. These patient use extreme measures to control their weight and this will often negatively affect their quality of life and health. These measures will include excessively limiting caloric intake of food, vomiting after eating, increasing physical activities, using dietary aids or using laxatives.

Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and body shape and these patients tend to judge themselves harshly for their preconceived flaws. Here, binge eating (ingesting a lot of food over a short period of time) and purging of the ingested food occurs and it also involves a feeling of lacking control over what one eats. These patients tend to have a normal weight or be slightly overweight and they also use extreme measures such as forcing themselves to vomit, using laxatives and excessively exercising. 

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by regularly eating an excessive amount of food and then feeling a lack of control over the eating. The patient eats a lot of food or eats very quickly even when they're not hungry and may even continue eating long after they're full. After this, feelings of guilt and shame set in and this results in eating alone to hide the bingeing. These patients can have a normal weight, be overweight or even obese.

If any of these signs and symptoms are present, then it is advisable to speak to the involved person about these issues and urge them to visit a primary care doctor to initiate management of the problem and to set up proper referrals for the patient.

Risk factors for developing eating disorders

The following aspects seem to identify patients which may be at high risk of developing eating disorders.

  • Female gender - teenage girls and young women are more likely to develop eating disorders as opposed to their male counterparts.
  • Age - these conditions tend to involve teenagers and those in their 20's in most cases.
  • Mental health issues - patients with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorder are more than likely to develop eating disorders.
  • Family history - patients are more likely to develop these disorders if their parents or siblings suffered from them.
  • Increased physical and emotional stressors.
  • Positive comments due to the results of dieting may cause some to carry on dieting excessively.
  • Sportsmen and women may be encouraged to carry on losing weight which may become problematic and cause then to develop these issues.
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