If you have an eating (or food) disorder, you use food to alter your mood – rather than for nutrition. You might do this by:
–or a mixture of all of these. The behaviour brings short-term relief from depression, stress or intense anxiety, until it builds up again and the action is repeated. The desire for control is a big factor. People with eating disorders often have a distorted view of the size of their bodies (body dysmorphia); they often have an exercise addiction as well; and use nicotine and caffeine to help stop hunger pangs. Two types of common food disorders have been given their own names:
Anorexia nervosa – this is the self-starvation syndrome involving body dysmorphia and intense fear of weight gain, in which the sufferer typically loses 20% or more of their original body weight, leading to muscle wasting. Sufferers usually have low self-esteem and intense feelings of shame and guilt, but are in strong denial about having a problem.
Bulimia nervosa – this is characterised by secret ‘binge’ episodes involving eating large amounts of very high-calorie foods, often followed by ‘purging’, either by vomiting, swallowing of laxative or diuretics, or obsessive exercise to rid the body of the calories consumed. Sufferers have the same low self-esteem as anorexics, but are usually more aware that they have a problem.
The pattern of seeking relief from negative feelings is typical of any addiction – e.g. to drugs or alcohol. People often don’t know or deny to themselves that they have a problem. Sufferers can recover using the same model of addiction as any other type of addict – although, instead of abstaining completely from food, they abstain from the addictive foods (foods like refined flour and sugar are known to alter mood), and eat three nutritious meals a day and nothing else.
If you know someone with a food disorder, it’s pointless getting bossy or frustrated with them and trying to get them to eat more, or less. They’re in an addictive process and they’re powerless over their behaviour. If you try to stop that behaviour, the person’s underlying negative feelings will escalate until they’re unbearable, and they’ll be forced to react. So the sufferer has to be shown that there’s another way to deal with those terrifying feelings, at the same time as quitting the addictive cycle.
It’s important to say that food disorders are potentially very damaging to physical and mental health, and can be fatal. Anorexia nervosa can result in sudden death, by the malnutrition accompanying the disease. Anorexia also causes amenorrhoea, low blood pressure, decreased heart size, dry skin, hair loss and cold intolerance (leading to increase in body hair). The self-induced vomiting of bulimics can lead to swelling of salivary glands, erosion of tooth enamel, electrolyte and mineral deficiencies, oesophagus tearing and irregular heart rhythm, while laxative abuse can cause long-lasting damage to bowel function.
Most food disorder sufferers begin with strict dieting, exercising, or overeating, and the condition escalates from there. Spotting the potential problem in the early stages can prevent years of misery and ill health.