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Eating disorders are often described as an outward expression of internal pain and confusion. Obsessive thoughts about food and associated behaviours are unhealthy ways of dealing with distress, which cannot be expressed in any other satisfactory way. The emotional distress is often to do with a negative perception of self, relationship or family problems, anxiety or depression, and a sense of loss of control. Food can be used as an inappropriate way of taking control.
Anorexia is the name given to a collection of symptoms relating to severe, sometimes life threatening, weight loss. Sufferers are typically in their teens or twenties and most are women, although around 10% are male. The longer the condition continues, the more difficult it can be to tackle. The following are symptoms:
- distorted perceptions of one's weight, size and shape (think they are fat when they are dangerously thin)
- behaviour which results in a marked weight loss
- an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
- excessive exercising (while starving)
- cessation of periods in women.
Bulimia is characterised by:
- normal weight
- distorted perception of own weight, size and shape
- a powerful urge to overeat, leading to binge eating and a resultant feeling of being out of control
- compensatory behaviour such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medication; fasting; or excessive exercise
- a morbid fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.
Sufferers may develop severe health implications they may not be aware of, such as tooth decay, dehydration, chemical imbalances in the body, serious glandular disturbances, damage to kidneys, stomach and the oesophagus, and even fits and irregular heartbeats.
- recurrent episodes of binge eating
- during a binge may: eat more quickly than normal; eat until uncomfortably over-full; eat large amounts when not hungry; tend to "graze" rather than eat meals; eat alone in secret; feel guilty and disgusted with oneself
- marked distress about binge eating and the attempts to control it, which usually lead to a period of rigid dieting and weight loss. This creates a cycle of binging and dieting
- eating is often not in response to physical hunger but of feelings of need and comfort.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified
Some people may have differing patterns of eating disorder and behaviours. Other, but related difficulties with food include:
- anorexic behaviour though still menstruating
- anorexic behaviour where, despite significant weight loss, current weight is still normal
- someone of normal weight inducing vomiting or purging after small amounts of food
- chewing and spitting food rather than swallowing
Overcoming Binge Eating - Fairburn, Guilford Press
Getting Better Bite by Bite: A Survival Kit for Sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorders - Schmidt and Treasure, Psychology Press
Eating Your Heart Out - Buckroyd, Optima
Anorexia Nervosa: A Guide For Sufferers and Their Families - Palmer, Penguin