About 29 million Americans will have some type of eating disorder in their lifetime. The exact cause is unclear, but cultural, biological, and psychological factors can play a crucial role in developing eating disorders. If you’re asking the question, “Do I have an eating disorder,” it’s time to get more information, and it may be time to seek professional guidance.
What are Eating Disorders?
People typically associate eating disorders with unhealthy food behaviors, but they extend far beyond nutrition. Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that require help from a mental health professional. They often start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.
“While eating disorders are increasingly common, that doesn’t mean they should be treated as commonplace,” said Mackenzie Reeser, MPH, RDN, LDN, Director of Nutrition Services at Integrative Life Center.
The Most Common Eating Disorders and Their Symptoms
Anorexia and bulimia are the most common and well-recognized eating disorders, but many other lesser-known types exist. Understanding the different types of eating disorders and their symptoms will help you answer the question, “Do I have an eating disorder?”
Bulimia Nervosa typically develops in adolescence or early adulthood. Women experience this mental health condition at higher rates than men.
People with bulimia tend to eat excessive quantities of food quickly. This behavior is known as “binge eating” or “binging.”
Following a binge, people with bulimia will take steps to rid their bodies of the calories they just ingested. This practice is commonly known as “purging” and may be done by self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives, for example.
Signs and symptoms of bulimia include:
- Obsession with body weight and type
- Repeat binging that feels like a complete loss of control
- Purging episodes to prevent weight gain
- A constant fear of gaining weight
- Acid reflux
- Sore or inflamed throat
- Tooth decay
- Severe dehydration
- Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to severe health conditions
As with bulimia, anorexia is commonly found in more women than men and is unique in using food restriction. With anorexia, a person exercises excessively, diets, and fasts to lose weight or to purge their body after binge eating.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia include:
- Extremely restricting eating habits
- Underweight for their age and similar height
- Even while underweight, incredibly fearful of gaining weight
- Obsession with thinness
- Distorted body view
- Self-esteem is dictated by body shape and size.
- Avoidance of public eating
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior
Binge Eating Disorder
People with binge eating disorder consume a large amount of food quickly but don’t purge to rid their bodies of the food. As a result, people with binge eating disorder are more likely to be overweight or live with obesity.
Men and older people are more prone to binge eating disorder.
Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating large amounts of food rapidly with a sense of a loss of control
- Experience distress, shame, guilt, or disgust after a binge
- Prefer to eat in a private setting
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) typically begins in early childhood but can continue into adulthood. It is equally common among men and women.
People with ARFID experience a distaste or lack of interest in foods with specific smells, colors, textures, and tastes. They aren’t merely picky eaters. The sensory characteristics of the food physically repulse them.
Signs and symptoms of ARFID include:
- Significant weight-loss
- Stunted growth in children
- Severe nutrient deficiencies
- Dependence on nutritional supplements
- Significant interference with body functionality
Collectively, eating disorders impact about 9% of the U.S. population. These disorders usually start in adolescence and young adulthood but can develop at any age. While certain eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent among women, these conditions can affect people of any gender.
Potential Causes of Eating Disorders
While the exact cause of these disorders isn’t always known, researchers have identified risk factors for developing an eating disorder.
Causes of eating disorders may include:
- Genetics. Some research discovered a genetic factor in the development of eating disorders.
- Personality Types. Those with traits such as neuroticism, perfectionism, or impulsivity tend to experience higher rates of eating disorders within their lifetime.
- Cultural Preference. In Western nations where “thinness” is the perceived ideal, eating disorders are far more common than in cultures where body weight is not a sociocultural ideal.
- Developmental Factors. Early disturbances in childhood development, such as childhood sexual abuse, can significantly increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Assessing Your Relationship with Food
Food is vital for survival but can become an issue if the mere concept is all-consuming. This simple screening may help you answer the question, “Do I have an eating disorder?” If you feel that you exhibit symptoms or that disordered eating is paving the way for an eating disorder, you should seek help from a mental health professional.
“If you think you may have an eating disorder or are developing a concerning relationship with food, it’s best to seek help from a qualified mental health professional than to wait and see if symptoms worsen,” Mackenzie said. “The earlier you seek treatment, the sooner you can heal.”
Unhealthy Eating Patterns and Attitudes
Constantly thinking about food, planning meals excessively, or being preoccupied with calorie counting, food rules, or restrictive eating patterns can indicate an unhealthy relationship with your food.
Other patterns to watch out for include:
- Emotional eating or relying on food as a coping mechanism
- Binge eating
- Restrictive eating or extreme dieting
- Giving food labels such as “good” or “bad”
- Compensatory behaviors, such as taking laxatives to “make up” for the food you ate
- Body dissatisfaction
- Guilt and shame
- Social isolation and avoiding situations where you might have to eat in front of people
If these behaviors or thoughts seem familiar to you, it could be a sign that you have a problem with your relationship with food and could benefit from support.
Seeking Professional Help
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness, partly because of all the physical complications that arise from them. Therefore, early intervention is critical in eating disorder treatment. It can lead to better outcomes and a higher likelihood of full recovery.
Benefits of early intervention for eating disorders include:
- Improved overall quality of life
- Increased chances of restoring a healthy relationship with food, body image, and overall well-being
- Minimization of long-term health risks
- Prevention of further physical and psychological complications
- Reduced impact on daily functioning
Eating disorders can lead to many complications and even death if left untreated, which is why it’s so important to seek help as soon as you begin wondering if you have a problem.
Recovery and Support
Recovery from eating disorders is a complex and individualized process that requires comprehensive treatment and ongoing support. It’s important to involve a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals specializing in eating disorders to provide personalized care.
“The best news about eating disorders is that you can heal and create better narratives about food,” Mackenzie stated. “There is hope for a future where food noise doesn’t consume you.”
Having a solid support system is also crucial in eating disorder recovery. This may include family, friends, support groups, as well as therapists, and healthcare providers who can provide emotional support, encouragement, and understanding throughout the journey.
Eating disorder treatment should be tailored to each person’s unique needs, and the recovery process can vary in duration and intensity, depending on your specific requirements.
At Integrative Life Center, eating disorder treatment services include:
- Individual and group therapy
- Art Therapy
- Mindfulness and Meditation
- Music Therapy
- Nutrition Counseling
How ILC Can Help
If you have an eating disorder, there is help for you at Integrative Life Center. We offer multiple levels of care for people seeking lasting recovery from eating disorders. Regardless of your individual needs, Integrative Life Center is ready to help you. Contact us for more details and to get started on your path to recovery.