Eating disorder warning signs

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Picking up on unhealthy extremes

Eating disorder warning signs
(Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images)

The very thoughts that kept me motivated to control my food intake and increase the intensity of my workouts quickly turned threatening. It became a type of self-punishment, pushing my physical body to the very brink.

— Jana Christian, recovered eating disorder victim

When Jana Christian started restrictive eating, it made her feel confident and strong. "I fought a constant battle in my head between what I wanted — food and sleep — and what I felt like I deserved: more strenuous exercise and less food," said the mother of two. "As I got used to the physical fatigue, severe anxiety and emotional instability kicked in to signal warning flags, which I chose to ignore." She fought this for 15 years. It eventually left her hospitalised and fed through a tube inserted into her small intestine. "The very thoughts that kept me motivated to control my food intake and increase the intensity of my workouts quickly turned threatening," she said. "It became a type of self-punishment, pushing my physical body to the very brink." Many have shared Christian's struggle. At least 1.1 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. While there are many causes — genetics, societal ideals, childhood trauma and peer pressure among them — prompt treatment is key to recovery. "We know from research and clinical observation that the quicker one heals from her eating disorder, the better the prognosis," said Julie Duffy Dillon, a registered dietitian who specialises in eating disorders. "Unfortunately, the average length of time one suffers before getting help is 13 months — too long." Understanding the warning signs of an eating disorder may help guide you or a loved one toward obtaining help and healing.

Anorexia

Anorexia literally means "loss of appetite." To be diagnosed as anorexic, your body weight must fall at least 15 percent below your ideal range. Self-starvation, although the best-known characteristic, is merely one aspect of the disease.

"People can see it," said Michelle Cleere, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist. "What people cannot see is what’s happening below the surface."

Cleere says many people with anorexia experience insecurity, depression, loneliness, perfectionism and a sense of lost control. These factors combine to form an intense fear of weight gain, a distorted self-perception and an obsession with weight control.

Like the symptoms of all eating disorders, those of anorexia typically appear and worsen gradually, then snowball into serious complications. Dillon says common warning signs include eliminating certain foods, taking only tiny bites, eating extremely slowly, showing a disinterest in social eating situations, and discomfort with spontaneous food choices.

"Eating too few calories can promote obsessive thoughts about food, irritability, insomnia, apathy, sexual dysfunction and depression," Dillon said. Consuming too few carbohydrates, she says, triggers constipation, irritability, fatigue, low muscle strength and poor sleep. Deficient protein intake can also lead to weak immune function, menstrual problems and anxiety.

Bulimia

Bulimia is characterised by a repetitive cycle of binge-eating and attempts to "un-eat" ingested food. A person with the purging type of bulimia will induce vomiting or misuse diuretics, laxatives or enemas. Non-purging bulimia involves fasting or excessive exercise to control weight, and little, if any, purging. Cleere says a bulimic person may also have a persistent concern with body weight or shape and an absence of anorexia.

Common warning signs of bulimia, she says, include secrecy surrounding eating, consumption of unusually large amounts of food, and alternating between overeating and fasting. People with bulimia may also get into excessive exercising. Calluses or scars may be visible on their knuckles or hands — the result of skin grating against teeth during self-induced vomiting.

Loved ones might discover large amounts of empty food packages in the bin or notice that groceries seem to disappear from the kitchen. Dillon says bulimia sufferers may also exercise intensely for two or more hours at a time and rush to the bathroom after meals.

Like anorexia, bulimia causes an intense fixation on weight control, poor body image and depression or anxiety.

Orthorexia

If your interest in healthy eating has become obsessive, you may have orthorexia, which means "fixation on righteous eating." Although not an officially recognised disorder, orthorexia causes symptoms similar to anorexia and bulimia.

"People with orthorexia spend a great deal of time thinking about food choices, which detracts from their quality of life," Cleere said. "They experience a lot of guilt and self-loathing if they don’t eat healthy food, and tend to socially isolate."

As with other eating disorders, thoughts and emotions underlie orthorexia symptoms, Cleere says. You may also exhibit other eating disorder traits, such as exercise obsession, anxiety or body weight fixation.

Because many popular diets encourage heavy restriction of calories or nutrient groups, such as carbohydrates, orthorexia can be mistaken for dieting.

"Many of these signs are overlooked because of what I call 'fat phobia,' " Dillon said. Society is so concerned about obesity, she says, that if a person exercises a lot, takes a long time to eat, chooses healthy foods and looks at food ingredients, it may all seem health-promoting when it is potentially harmful.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder, like bulimia, involves repeated binging, poor body image and depression. People with BED, however, do not purge, fast or take other measures to eliminate consumed food. They may maintain a normal weight or carry excess weight. In some cases, BED leads to obesity.

Warning signs for BED, said Cleere, include an inability to stop eating, rapid consumption of large amounts of food, eating even when you're full, and stockpiling or hiding food to eat later. You may eat normally around others, then gorge in private or eat continuously throughout the day, with no planned meal times. Food intake for a person with BED might be described as "chaotic."

One 42-year-old woman who struggled with BED began to emerge from the chaos after a friend expressed concerns for her well-being, and she is now in the early stages of recovery.

"All she ever saw me eat was light, healthy meals, yet I gained close to 8 stone in a year," said the woman, who asked that her name not be mentioned. "I made excuses at first ... blamed a made-up thyroid problem. When she asked me flat out if I was binging, I was so ashamed. But finally talking to someone was a relief. I felt ready to get help."

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