For some of us, body weight is something we think about on the scale at the doctor’s office, wiggling into our favorite jeans, or putting on a fancy outfit for a special occasion. Our weight-loss-saturated media landscape makes the topic a tough one to avoid – and it’s normal to have it on our minds from time to time.
Many of us can go about the rest of our day without being too bogged down by thoughts of our weight or appearance. For people with an eating disorder, however, these things become enmeshed with their identity – even their value as a person.
Eating disorders can be triggered by stress, severe anxiety, or trauma, and they thrive in isolation. So it’s no surprise that eating disorders have been on the rise throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Eating Disorders Association has reported an increase in calls to their helpline of as much as 80 percent over the past year.
It’s important to know how eating disorders develop, how you can identify one in yourself or in a loved one, and where you can turn for help.
The Psychology of Eating Disorders
Disordered eating is not about having “bad” or “weird” eating habits. They are mental health disorders usually characterized by repetitive cycles of restriction, shame, and punishment in relation to the consumption of food.
The usual media portrayal of eating disorders is a narrow one, typically portraying those who struggle as young, white, female, and affluent. In reality, eating disorders don’t look any particular way – they affect tens of millions of Americans, of all races and genders, and at every socioeconomic level.
And while most of us are no stranger to weight-related thoughts or concerns, the stress and pressure felt by people who struggle with eating disorders is far beyond what others experience.
The three most commonly known eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa, often referred to as simply anorexia, characterized by a distorted body image and strict restriction of foods and caloric intake. People with anorexia often exercise excessively and may appear very thin (though this isn’t always the case).
- Bulimia is a cycle of eating food in large amounts – binge eating – and then “making up for it” by purging. This most often means self-inducing vomiting or utilizing laxatives.
- Binge Eating Disorder involves episodes of overeating, or bingeing food.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
There is some evidence that genetics play a role in someone’s predisposition to eating disorders. Brain imaging has been used to build a foundation of research to better understand the brain patterns of people who struggle with eating disorders.
Psychological issues can cause people to look to food restriction to feel a sense of control, and emotional eating or eating in response to negative feelings can contribute, as well.
Environmental factors can also play a role in the development of eating disorders – especially in light of the outsized role of social media and the comparison it encourages in our lives.
Eating disorders can flourish when people are isolated, so the onset of social distancing and isolating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – as well as the loss of routine and the significant increase in anxiety across the board – has caused a sharp rise in their prevalence.
Why It’s Important to Seek Treatment for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can have significant impacts on our physical health. Depriving ourselves of adequate nutrition, cutting calories too sharply, exercising excessively, etc. can have serious consequences on our bodies. Excessive vomiting, as well, can damage the esophagus and cause issues down the line. Anorexia alone can result in cardiac arrest, electrolyte imbalance, and depression that leads to suicide.
And when these disorders affect children whose bodies are still developing, there can be lifelong effects, including chronic illness, stunted growth, and difficulty conceiving later in life.
How Can You Identify an Eating Disorder?
In a culture that tells us we should be dieting all the time, it can be difficult to gauge when thoughts of weight and appearance become problematic.
But it’s important to do so – while treatment can be successful at any stage of an eating disorder, there is some evidence that getting help within the first three years of the disorder’s development may lead to better outcomes.
Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders In Adults
Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders can develop in adulthood. You might recognize signs or symptoms in either your own behaviors or in those of a loved one.
Eating disorders in adulthood can have a variety of signs and symptoms, including emotional and behavioral changes:
- An increase in interest in or focus on dieting or controlling food to an unhealthy degree
- A preoccupation with weight or the number on the scale
- New or worsening food restrictions, either concerning nutritional value (i.e.: “macros”) or cutting out entire food groups
- Adoption of rigid food “rituals,” behaviors that must be engaged in around food or eating (i.e.: not allowing food to touch, weighing or measuring food to an unreasonable degree)
- Depression, mood swings, or withdrawal from social situations
Physical signs and symptoms of eating disorders in adults can include the following:
- Significant fluctuations in weight, whether gaining or losing
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as acid reflux or constipation
- Difficulty focusing, or “brain fog”
- New or worsening struggles with insomnia or other sleep difficulties
- Muscle weakness
- Always feeling cold
- Impaired immune function
- Evidence of binge eating or purging, such as food wrappers or boxes of laxatives
- Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children and Teens
The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can look different in children and teens than they do in adults.
Pay attention if a child has:
- Significantly reduced their food portions or stopped eating altogether,
- Begun hiding or hoarding food in unusual places,
- Shown obvious weight loss or begun wearing larger clothing to hide weight loss, or
- Developed a sudden and intense interest in the nutritional or caloric value of foods.
Other signs and symptoms might include a fear of becoming overweight or an increase in self-criticism. If a child mentions being on a diet or seems to be exercising excessively, these can be signs that the child’s mindset around food and eating has changed.
In boys, particularly, eating disorders may show up as a heightened awareness of body shape and interest in controlling weight, working out to gain muscle, or using supplements.
And, of course, any signs of depression, anxiety, or an increase in irritability should be taken seriously.
Where To Get Help for An Eating Disorder
Eating disorders require the help and support of trusted friends, family, and professionals. Don’t try to go it alone!
If you think that you or a loved one might be experiencing an eating disorder, there are several steps you can take.
- Reach out to a medical professional or clinical psychologist. Your doctor or therapist is a trusted advisor who can guide you through the process of identifying and beginning the most appropriate treatment option.
- Learn about the various treatment options. Eating disorder treatment programs come in many shapes and sizes, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased use of virtual platforms for all types of therapeutic care.
- Call, text, or use the online chat feature of the NEDA hotline. The National Eating Disorders Association provides several options for reaching out and receiving immediate care and support around eating disorders. Trained helpline volunteers can help you find the information and resources you need.
Reach Out to the Clinical Psychologists at AWP
Recovering from an eating disorder is a process that requires a high level of care and consistent support. It often affects competitive athletes and high-performing people of all ages.
The clinical sport psychologists at Amplify Wellness + Performance have many years of experience treating eating disorders in athletes, high-performers, and their families. Start the conversation today.