Do you have an eating disorder?

People of all ages, races, ethnicities, body weights, and genders are susceptible to developing eating disorders. [iStockphoto]

There is a widespread misconception that eating disorders are lifestyle choices, but eating disorders are serious, biologically influenced medical illnesses characterised by severe disturbances to one’s eating behaviours, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

In 2019, 14 million people experienced eating disorders, including almost 3 million children and adolescents, as reported by the World Health Organisation. 

People of all ages, races, ethnicities, body weights, and genders are susceptible to developing eating disorders. Even people who seem to be in good health, like athletes, can have eating disorders and be very ill. 

People with eating disorders can be underweight, normal weight, or overweight. In other words, a person’s appearance does not necessarily indicate the presence of an eating disorder. It is unclear what specifically causes eating disorders. 

According to research, an individual’s risk can be increased by a confluence of genetic, biological, behavioural, psychological, and social factors. 

Chadwick Digo, a nutritionist, stresses the importance of distinguishing between dietary choices and the development of eating disorders, particularly in the case of anorexia. He points out that many people mistakenly conflate dieting with an eating disorder. He explains that research and experience in health facilities have shown that the symptoms of dieting can be closely related to the effects of starvation. 

“People are dieting and are avoiding foods that can give them energy. They’re not even meeting their daily nutritional needs, which affects the brain and can even lead to mood changes, rigid thinking, and even reduced appetite,” Mr Digo stresses. 

“And I want you to think of a day you’ve not taken lunch, a day you have not taken supper,” he says. “Your thoughts, how you move, and even how you carry yourself. You may end up finding that you are not in the shape that you wish.” 

A variety of factors may contribute to the emergence of eating disorders, according to dietitian Dr Mary Mugambi. Societal pressure, psychological influences, body weight sensitivity, and the desire to control body weight for enhanced athletic performance are some factors at play. 

“Most eating disorders show up in the teen years. It can start earlier than that for a few people, or it can start a bit later. There are cases of women of childbearing age who are expectant but have an eating disorder. They try to eat to support their pregnancy while dreading weight gain. It’s like a double-edged sword,” she says. 

  1. Anorexia nervosa

According to Dr Mugambi, this disorder, characterised by an unhealthy low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight, is often associated with adolescents. However, anorexia is not limited to any specific age group. 

“Anorexia nervosa is voluntary self-starvation. The person just says, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like eating, or I won’t eat it for whatever reason,’ and so after a prolonged time, you will see that they have resulted in excessive weight loss. Very emaciated,” Dr Mugambi says.

“You’ve seen some very slender people. Even if you tell them to eat, they fear that the food they are going to eat will add weight,” Mr Digo says. 

“Sometimes they limit calorie intake, cut out certain kinds of foods from their food group and their diet, and even sometimes use other methods to lose weight; they do a lot of exercising, and they do too much exercising,” he explains. 

“They even use drugs such as laxatives, and they’ll even use diet aids, whereby there are diet models people take and even vomit after eating just to maintain their body,” Mr Digo adds.

  1. Bulimia nervosa

According to Dr Mugambi, frequently occurring binge-eating episodes are a part of bulimia nervosa, which is then followed by compensatory behaviours. These compensatory behaviours may include self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives, and engaging in excessive exercise.

“Others use laxatives to induce diarrhoea; others will start the compulsive exercise. For example, I’ve seen teenagers who are exercising at 3 in the morning, doing sit-ups and running on the spot so that they don’t gain weight.” Dr Mugambi elaborates, “Others then will go into very prolonged fasting episodes.”

  1. Binge-eating disorder

In this third disorder, sufferers uncontrollably devour massive quantities of food in a short period. “It feels like there’s no control over eating.” Mr Digo explains, “So just in a short time, you’re not feeling full, but you still eat and eat and eat.”

  1. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

Young children are more likely to suffer from this disorder, according to Mr Digo. This disorder may cause substantial weight loss and make it difficult to gain weight, which may lead to health problems.

“If you introduce certain kinds of foods early like sweet tasting foods to children,”  Mr Digo notes, “They now start to avoid other foods that could be nutritious and more beneficial to their bodies.”

Overcoming the disorders

Recognising the concern is the first and most important step in getting aid and treatment.

“It’s very hard sometimes, and if they don’t admit it, then it becomes a bigger problem. So, how do you help this person? There are several ways and several levels of treatment,” says Dr Mugambi.

Mr Digo underscores the value of providing sympathetic support, early detection, and expert assistance to individuals dealing with eating disorders. Prevention and assistance are essential to addressing this complex issue.

“If we notice a family member, a friend, or a child who seems to show some signs of an eating disorder, it’s quite important that we consider that such a person may need help,” he says.

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