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Updated 10 September 2021

What are Eating Disorders?

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An Eating disorder is a severe mental health condition where a person has an unhealthy obsession with food, eating, exercise or body shape. It can affect people of all ages, genders, and cultures. In fact, it is estimated that 1 out of 7 people in Australia will experience an eating disorder sometime in their lifetime, while 1 million people are estimated to be currently living with this mental health condition. Cause of eating disorders An eating disorder is usually caused by a combination of factors, such as;
  • Genetics may be a contributing factor to the development of an eating disorder. If a person comes from a family with a history of mental illness, that person could be at higher risk of having an eating disorder.
  • Traumatic events can trigger an eating disorder. The death of a loved one, bullying, divorce or a history of abuse (sexual or emotional abuse).
  • Problems with relationships.
  • Problems at school, university or work.
  • Low self-worth, low confidence, and low self-esteem.
Signs and symptoms of Eating Disorders      Many people with Eating Disorders tend to go into self-denial mode and may even become defensive or aggressive when asked or confronted about their condition. Nevertheless, there are still signs and symptoms that you can look out for. Some of the signs and symptoms which may suggest a person has an eating disorder include;
  • obsession with weight and dieting and this includes - skipping meals, fasting or kilojoule or calorie counting.
  • binge-eating which also includes secretive eating and the hoarding of large amounts of food.
  • Purging which includes vomiting and the use of laxatives to get rid of food from the body. Often make regular trips to the toilet during or shortly after eating.
  • Excessive focus on body weight and shape.
  • Excessive exercising
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Mood changes.
  • A change in clothing especially from slim fit clothing to very loose fitting clothing.
Poor eating habits can cause many physical signs and symptoms as well, some of which include
  • Fatigue and tiredness.
  • Feeling light-headed, faint, or dizzy.
  • Weight fluctuations.
  • Cold weather sensitivity.
  • A disruption in a person's menstrual cycle.
  • Irrational thinking, poor concentration, and focus.
Types of Eating Disorders Eating disorders come in different forms. However, food is the object of all eating disorders and an unhealthy relationship or preoccupation with food is the common theme for all eating disorders. Some common types of Eating Disorders include;
  • Anorexia nervosa: This an eating disorder characterised by a distorted body image and an obsession to lose weight or fear of gaining weight. The person eats very little at a time, infrequently or not at all and may exercise excessively. In Australia, less than 1 out of 100 people suffer from this condition.
  • Binge Eating Disorder or BED: This is an eating disorder characterised by excessive, and sometimes uncontrollable eating even when they are not hungry. This condition accounts for up to half of the eating disorder cases in Australia.
  • Bulimia nervosa: This is an eating disorder where a person engages in binge-eating, often in private, and then attempts to eliminate the food by using laxatives or engaging in self-induced vomiting. In Australia, it is estimated that bulimia nervosa affects 1 out of 10 individuals suffering from Eating Disorders.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): OSFED sufferers tend to exhibit many of the signs and symptoms of the other eating disorders, but does not align with any one of them specifically. It is estimated that OSFED affects 1 out of 3 people with eating disorders in Australia.
When to seek help? You should seek medical assistance for an eating disorder when you display any of the signs and symptoms mentioned above. Early medical help is essential in the treatment and management of this mental health condition because eating disorders can lead to serious emotional and physical health concerns. Treatment for eating disorders        You should know that there is actually no medication specifically designed to treat Eating Disorders. However, people with this mental health condition may be prescribed medication to treat associated health concerns, such as; antidepressants can be prescribed to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression. The treatment for eating disorders can be complex as treatments need to be specific to the individualistic nature of the condition. Treatment may involve a team of health professionals each providing their expertise in the management of the condition and working collaboratively to get the best outcomes for care.  This team usually consist of a doctor, psychologist and dietician but may also include, when required, a paediatrician, psychiatrist, social workers, nurses and/or occupational therapists. With younger eating disorder patients, a family-centered treatment approach may be required to educate the family of the patient on how they can support and help the person to recover from their eating disorder.