Eating disorders are complex mental and physical illnesses typically characterized by disturbed eating habits accompanied by an intense fear of weight gain. Those who suffer from the most common eating disorders tend to have an abnormal focus on food, body weight and self-image.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
Eating disorders are most commonly diagnosed in women ages 12-35, but can affect men or women of any age. These disorders can have serious mental and physical health consequences, and can lead to death. Eating disorders include a group of related disorders that all cause emotional and physical harm. There are many types of eating disorders, but the three most common are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED).
Anorexia is a dangerous—and potentially fatal—eating disorder. People with anorexia and may limit their food intake to the point of starvation. Inadequate calories and poor nutrition disrupt normal body functions which can be life-threatening. Anorexia is diagnosed in individuals who have significantly low weight in relation to their body mass index. Signs of anorexia may include:
- Eating abnormally small amounts of food
- Refusing to eat certain foods or food groups
- Food rituals, like cutting food into tiny pieces
- Obsessively thinking about food and calories
- An exaggerated fear of gaining weight
- An unrealistic body image (seeing themselves as fat even when very thin)
- The use laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
- Obsession with physical exercise
- Signs of anxiety, depression, or mood swings
- Failure to accept how severely low body weight can affect health
Malnutrition caused by anorexia can lead to serious health problems, including brittle bones, hair and nails, cessation of menstruation in women, irregular heart rhythm, muscle loss, low blood pressure, constipation, dehydration, downy hair growth on the body and insomnia. Hormonal imbalances can result in growth issues, infertility and mood disorders.
Bulimia is characterized by repeated cycles of binge eating and then purging. People with bulimia may be thin, average weight or overweight. Bulimia may be diagnosed if binge/purge behavior occurs at least weekly for three months. Symptoms of bulimia may include:
- Eating large amounts of food at one time
- Inability to control the amount of food eaten
- Purging calories by vomiting, use of diuretics, laxatives, enemas, diet pills, fasting or excessive exercise
- Obsessive focus on body weight and shape
- May binge and purge in secret
The National Institutes of Health warn, “Purging behavior can be associated with severe medical complications across all body systems.” Bulimia has been found to contribute to gastric rupture, tooth decay, rupture of the esophagus, pancreatitis, heart attack and stroke.
If a person binge eats at least once a week for 3 months, it may be a sign of a binge eating disorder. Symptoms of binge eating disorder may include:
- Consuming large amounts of food in a short time period
- Compulsively overeating
- Continuing to eat when full
- Eating faster than normal
- Often hiding binge eating from others
- Eating alone so others don’t see or judge
- Feeling upset and disgusted with self after binging
- Frequently dieting without losing weight, may gain weight
Binge eating can cause muscle or joint pain, intestinal distress, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and anxiety disorder. Studies suggest there may also be a link between eating disorders like bulimia and binge eating and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) in women. PCOS affects hormone levels and can make it more difficult to get pregnant. Because PCOS causes a higher than normal level of male hormones, it can also result in growth of facial or body hair or baldness.
Other Eating Disorders
Less common eating disorders include Pica, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Rumination Disorder.
Pica is the consumption of non-food items like dirt, paper, chalk, hair or cloth. Consumption of non-food items can lead to infections, intestinal tears or blockages, poisoning and nutritional deficiencies. Items like paint chips may contain lead, which could lead to learning disabilities. Pica most often occurs in children or in populations with severe mental health issues.
ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) is usually diagnosed during childhood. Children or adults with ARFID show little interest in food and often limit or avoid food. It is not a fear of gaining weight or poor body image that causes this behavior, but rather a disgust or fear of food. Those with ARFID may find the smell, taste or texture of the food unappealing, or they may have a fear of choking on the food. This can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies and can affect growth and development in children.
Rumination Disorder is diagnosed when a person repeatedly chews, swallows and then regurgitates food. After regurgitating the food, they may re-chew it or spit it out. Rumination Disorder can affect children or adults, and can lead to severe malnutrition.
Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis
Dual diagnosis, also called co-occurring disorder, means that an individual is experiencing two or more mental health disorders at the same time. Eating disorders are often accompanied by a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, PTSD or substance use disorder.
According to a study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry, “About two-thirds of the individuals with eating disorders had one or more lifetime anxiety disorders; the most common were obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)…and social phobia… The prevalence of anxiety disorders in general and OCD…was much higher in people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa than in a nonclinical group of women in the community.”
For the highest chance of long-term recovery, it is essential to address all co-occurring disorders in the treatment recovery plan.
Successful treatment of eating disorders, along with any co-occurring disorders, takes a team of medical professionals including doctors, nutrition specialists and therapists. If life-threatening weight loss, drug or alcohol addiction or other serious complications are present, hospitalization or detoxification are often necessary before beginning clinical treatment.
Therapeutic approaches include individual or group therapy, behavioral therapies and family counseling. The 12-step principles of recovery are an effective component of an eating disorder recovery plan.
Turning Point of Tampa
In 1989, Turning Point of Tampa developed their nationally recognized Eating Disorders/Food Addiction Program for clients with Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa. This comprehensive program uses a 12-Step-based treatment approach to focus on treating the addictive behaviors with food.
- At Turning Point of Tampa our food addiction treatment plan includes:
- Individualized food plans
- Individual and group counseling
- Body image groups
- Meal planning, food shopping, and meal preparation
- Nutritional education
- Balanced exercise
- Development of assertive communication skills
Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.