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Behavioural Signs of Eating Disorders

The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (anorexia), bulimia nervosa (bulimia) and binge eating disorder. Though these eating disorders manifest themselves in different ways, they are each based on the underlying idea that the individuals who suffer from them cannot separate their emotions from their eating habits, or in fact choose to use their eating habits to express their emotions, and this skews both the way and the amount that they eat.


Behavioural Signs of Anorexia

Anorexia is an eating disorder that manifests itself through an intense fear of gaining weight and body fat, and results in behaviours such as extreme dieting, outright fasting and excessive exercising to burn calories. Most anorexics do not recognise their behaviours as dangerous and may be so rigid in their regimes that they are unwilling to consider acting in a different way. Many anorexics engage in behaviours such as:


  • Obsessively counting calories.
  • Skipping meals.
  • “Playing” with or pushing food around a plate rather than eating it.
  • Hiding food (in a napkin, under a plate, etc.) to avoid eating it.
  • Lying about having eaten in an attempt to avoid a meal or snack.
  • Avoiding social events which require eating or involve food.
  • Eating only a limited number or type of food.
  • Exercising excessively, particularly after or “to make up for” eating.
  • Dramatically losing weight.
  • Showing excessive interest in weight, body image and fasting.
  • Hiding behind loose or baggy clothing.
  • Displaying low energy levels.
  • Frequently falling ill.
  • Sleeping excessively, including during the day.
  • Showing low or no sex drive.


Behavioural Signs of Bulimia

Bulimia is an eating disorder that manifests itself through binge eating followed by purging behaviours such as vomiting or taking laxatives. Many bulimics engage in behaviours such as:


  • Binging, or eating a great amount of food in one sitting.
  • Purging, or attempting to get rid of eaten food by inducing vomiting or taking laxatives or diuretics.
  • Hiding the reserved for binges including bread, pasta, sweets, desserts, crisps and ice cream.
  • Lying about what has been eaten.
  • Purging in secret.
  • Hiding items such as laxatives or diuretics.
  • Displaying concern for body weight, body shape and overall image.
  • Frequently complaining of sore throats (brought on by repeated vomiting).
  • Frequently complaining of dental problems (also brought on by repeated vomiting).
  • Hiding behind loose or baggy clothing.
  • Showing low or no sex drive.


Behavioural Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

Those suffering from binge eating disorder will consume large amounts of food at one sitting but will not purge or rid themselves of this food afterwards. Many binge eaters engage in behaviours such as:


  • Ingesting an excessive amount of food, even if they are not hungry.
  • Eating until they feel uncomfortable or sick.
  • Hiding their eating habits due to shame or embarrassment.
  • Hiding secret stashes of food for binges.
  • “Grazing” for as long as food is available.
  • Emotional eating, or eating when they feel stressed out or overwhelmed.
  • Feeling out of control, ashamed and/or guilty both during and after a binge.
  • Expressing disgust at their eating, weight, body or appearance.


Eating Disorders and the Physical Signs

 


Physical Signs of Anorexia

 

Anorexics run the risk of starving themselves, and indeed those suffering from a severe form of the disorder may seem to actually welcome this state, so the health risks of anorexia are akin to starvation. Severe weight loss (to a total body weight that is at least 15% less than what would be normal for a given height and age), dry hair, nails and skin, a loss of hair or nails, anaemia (which leads to frequent and easy bruising), a loss of muscle mass (reducing their strength and athletic abilities), a loss of menstrual periods, joint pain and osteoporosis/brittle bones (leading to easy bone breaks) are all associated with anorexia.

 

Anorexics may also become extremely sensitive to the cold and feel cold all the time, with blue fingers, toes and/or lips due to a faltering circulation system. They may even sprout fine white hairs known as lanugo, which is their bodies’ attempt to insulate itself in the absence of body fat. Damage to the heart, liver and kidneys may also occur in severe cases of anorexia, all of which could lead to death.

 


Physical Signs of Bulimia

 

Unlike anorexics, bulimics tend to be slightly overweight due to their binges and a number of the physical signs indicative of bulimia are related to the binge and purge cycle. Many bulimics frequently suffer from sore throats and dental issues such as swollen glands, cavities, gingivitis, dry mouth and general mouth infections due to frequent vomiting. This vomiting may lead to scarring of the fingers (used for inducing a purge) as well. In addition to constipation and diarrhoea, both of which can be brought about by binges, bulimics may also induce electrolyte imbalances in their bodies due to binging and purging. This imbalance occurs when the required amounts of sodium and potassium are either not met or are over-supplied. This imbalance can lead to damage of the heart muscle and/or heart attacks. Bulimics also tend to be susceptible to depression and to changing behaviours and becoming anorexic.

 


Physical Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

 

Due to overeating and resulting obesity, binge eaters put themselves at risk for a wide variety of health conditions and diseases. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, joint and muscle pain and sleep apnoea are all common physical signs associated with binge eating disorder. The large amounts of food consumed may also lead to stomach and gastrointestinal pain, gum infections and cavities due to large amounts of sugar and acid consumed, and constipation or diarrhoea. Unfortunately, just because binge eaters consume a vast amount of food does not mean that they always ingest recommended daily intakes of necessary vitamins and minerals, and health problems can result from specific deficiencies as well.

 


Eating Disorders and the Social Signs

 


Withdrawal from Social Life

 

An individual’s withdrawal from his/her regular social life is a common sign of an eating disorder, though it may result from a variety of factors. Individuals suffering from eating disorders are often hyper-critical about their appearances, and this dissatisfaction may lead them to avoid public settings. They may also wish to avoid the settings at which they previously spent time, particularly if they revolved around food or drink, such as cafes, restaurant or pubs. Individuals suffering from eating disorders may also withdraw from their social lives because they require them to give up too much control and follow a group plan, or because they have become depressed and a general apathy keeps them from making and keeping plans.

 


Avoidance of Social Settings Involving Food

 

Many individuals suffering from eating disorders will avoid social settings that involve food, even if they continue to engage in other social activities. For anorexics, this may be because they do not want to be forced to eat foods or amounts of food with which they are uncomfortable. Binge eaters and bulimics may avoid social settings involving food as they fear that they will be helpless to stop “grazing” or eating for as long as food is available, even if they become full before this point.

 

Bulimics may also avoid social settings involving food for fear that they will be unable to secretly purge afterwards. Individuals suffering from eating disorders may also avoid eating or being near food in public as the associated thoughts about their weight and/or appearance may become too much for them to cope with and lead them into further abnormal behaviours.

 


Loss of Interest in Previously Enjoyed Activities

 

In addition to a general withdrawal from social life and/or a specific avoidance of social settings involving food, individuals suffering from an eating disorder may also lose interest in activities which they previously enjoyed, even if these are relatively private or home-bound activities.

 

Unfortunately, due to a preoccupation with preparing food, eating food or working off food such as through excessive exercising or secret purging, there is often little time left for other hobbies. Some public activities, such as book clubs or craft groups, may also be avoided due to worries about food or privacy.

 


Psychological Signs of Eating Disorders

 

Eating disorders are disorders in which eating behaviours become skewed from eating too little (anorexia) to eating too much (binge eating disorder) to eating too much and purging afterwards (bulimia). These eating disorders are often accompanied by psychological signs that may be secondary and result from the eating behaviours or primary such that the eating behaviours result from the psychological distress.

 

In fact, diagnosing an eating disorder requires that mental health criteria be met in addition to physical criteria such as weight or eating habits. In order to effectively treat an eating disorder, treating the psychological signs is imperative. Treatments will vary according to the needs of individuals, but those suffering from eating disorders will need to be ready to offer their input into the treatment plan so that the best possible routes of treatment are explored.

 


Psychological Signs Associated with Eating Disorders

 

Though eating disorders are usually recognised by the eating behaviours of an individual, psychological signs are often in abundance as well. Common psychological signs associated with eating disorders include low self-confidence and poor self-image. Indicators of low self-confidence includes the individual avoiding social events, bowing out of competition (including sports and academics) and criticising themselves repeatedly, for example, saying “Of course I made a mistake, I always make mistakes, I’m so dumb!” Poor self-image can often be observed in deeply critical remarks about one’s own body, indications that one is never satisfied with how one looks and repeated comments about wanting to lose weight or change one’s image. Depression also commonly accompanies eating disorders, which can be observed in such signs as sleeping excessively or not at all, low energy levels and general apathy.

 


Psychological Illnesses Associated with Eating Disorders

 

In addition to common psychological signs, a variety of psychological illnesses have been proven to associate with eating disorders as well. Alcoholism, drug addiction and self-injury (such as cutting and self-mutilation) are all conditions that can accompany eating disorders. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression, Manic Depression, Panic Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder are all mental illnesses that have been diagnosed alongside eating disorders. A trained mental health professional who diagnoses more than one disorder in a patient will set about creating an effective treatment plan to treat all signs and symptoms of the disorders as well as the disorders themselves.

 


Treating Eating Disorders

 

There is no single, recognised cure for eating disorders as any treatment plan will need to be modified to best suit the needs of the individual patient. To this end there are a variety of treatment options. Common treatment for eating disorders include counselling/therapy, family counselling/therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy (to change food and eating behaviours), the use of support groups or group therapy, and nutritional counselling and planning. Medication may also be employed to treat an associated condition of an eating disorder, such as Depression. The best treatment plans are those that take into account the needs, desires and comfort levels of the patient, so individuals should be ready to work closely with their doctors to craft the most suitable treatment plan possible.



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