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Eating Disorders: Causes, Symptoms and Types

Updated: Jun 20


Eating Disorders
Eating Disorders
 

Eating disorders are serious health issues characterized by unhealthy eating habits and an obsessive desire to control body weight. They can lead to severe health consequences, both physical and psychological. This article discusses what eating disorders are, their symptoms, the factors contributing to their development, and the most common types.


What are eating disorders?


Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that affect how individuals think about food, their bodies, and their weight. These disorders can lead to unhealthy eating habits and significant health problems. Eating disorders are often associated with an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. They frequently coexist with other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds, though they are most commonly diagnosed in young women. They often emerge during adolescence or early adulthood, but they can occur at any age.


Symptoms of Eating Disorders


Symptoms can vary depending on the type of disorder, but the most common symptoms include:


  • Drastic changes in body weight: sudden weight loss or gain.

  • Excessive focus on food, calories, and diet: constant calorie counting, obsession with healthy eating.


  • Avoidance of eating with others: shame related to eating habits.

  • Excessive physical activity: intense exercise aimed at burning calories.


  • Menstrual irregularities in women: absence of menstruation (amenorrhea) or irregular cycles.

  • Physical health issues: digestive problems, weakness, dehydration, nutritional deficiencies, heart problems, osteoporosis.


Distorted Body Image

Key Characteristics of Eating Disorders


1. Unhealthy Eating Habits: Individuals with eating disorders may consume very small amounts of food, binge eat, or use extreme methods to control their weight, such as vomiting, abusing laxatives, or excessive physical activity.


2. Distorted Body Image: Most people suffering from eating disorders have a distorted perception of their body, often seeing themselves as overweight even if they are extremely underweight.


3. Psychological Components: Eating disorders are deeply rooted in emotional and psychological issues. Low self-esteem, perfectionism, difficulty managing emotions, and traumatic past experiences can contribute to the development of these disorders.


4. Health Consequences: Untreated eating disorders can lead to serious health problems, such as heart damage, digestive issues, osteoporosis, kidney problems, and other severe conditions. In extreme cases, they can be fatal.


Factors Influencing the Development of Eating Disorders


The development of eating disorders can be influenced by a combination of various factors, including:


  • Genetic Factors: Genetic predispositions can increase the risk of developing eating disorders. Research indicates a link between eating disorders and certain genes that regulate appetite, metabolism, and emotions.


  • Social and Cultural Environment: Media promoting a thin physique place a significant emphasis on external appearance. Social pressure regarding the ideal body can lead to eating disorders, especially among adolescents.


  • Social Pressure Related to Body Image: Peer influence, pressure from social media, and advertisements can have a significant impact.


  • Stress and Emotions: Emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and childhood traumas can contribute to the development of eating disorders.


  • Traumatic Experiences: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can be significant risk factors.


Mental Health
Types of Eating Disorders

Types of Eating Disorders


Anorexia Nervosa


Anorexia is a disorder characterized by extreme food restriction, leading to significant weight loss and serious health issues. Individuals with anorexia have a distorted body image and intense fear of gaining weight. Research suggests that a diagnosis of anorexia may be made when diagnostic criteria are met for at least three months. Anorexia can be divided into two main types: restricting type and binge-eating/purging type. Additionally, there is secondary anorexia, which is caused by other physical or mental disorders, where loss of appetite and weight is a secondary symptom to the primary illness. Symptoms may include:


  • Significant weight loss

  • Obsessive calorie counting and weighing oneself

  • Avoidance of eating and starvation

  • Excessive physical activity

  • Health problems such as weakness, loss of menstruation, heart issues, osteoporosis


Bulimia


Bulimia is a disorder characterized by binge-eating episodes, during which a person consumes large amounts of food in a short period, followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, using laxatives, or excessive physical activity to rid the body of excess calories. Symptoms must occur on average at least once a week for a period of three months. They may include:


  • Binge-eating episodes

  • Vomiting or use of laxatives

  • Extreme fluctuations in weight

  • Dental issues and gum problems

  • Digestive and electrolyte imbalances


Bigorexia (Muscle Dysmorphia)


Muscle Dysmorphia, also known as bigorexia, is a disorder where an individual obsessively strives to increase muscle mass, often at the expense of their health. People with muscle dysmorphia spend a lot of time on strength training and adhere to unhealthy diets and supplements to achieve their desired appearance. Symptoms of muscle dysmorphia may include:


  • Excessive physical exercise


  • Obsessive control over diet and use of supplements


  • Negative body image


  • Health problems associated with excessive physical exertion and unhealthy dietary practices


Orthorexia


Orthorexia is an obsessive pursuit of consuming only healthy food. It is considered a pathological fixation. Individuals with orthorexia may spend many hours planning and preparing meals, as well as avoiding food they deem unhealthy. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and social isolation. Symptoms of orthorexia may include:


  • Obsession with healthy eating

  • Avoidance of food deemed unhealthy

  • Exclusion of entire food groups from the diet

  • Nutritional deficiencies

  • Social isolation


Binge Eating Disorder (BED)


Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by regular episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period, without subsequent compensatory actions, leading to overweight and obesity. Individuals with this disorder often experience shame and guilt about their behavior. Binge eating episodes must occur on average at least once a week for a period of three months. Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder may include:


  • Binge-eating episodes


  • Eating in secret


  • Lack of control over the amount of food consumed


  • Overweight or obesity


  • Health problems associated with excessive eating, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases


Food Chaos


Food chaos refers to a lack of structure and control in eating habits, which can lead to the development of various eating disorders. Individuals experiencing food chaos may alternate between restrictive diets and binge-eating, worsening their physical and mental health. Food chaos is often associated with a chaotic eating pattern characterized primarily by frequent snacking with complete meal skipping. This menu consists of snacks such as chips, sticks, or candies, as well as ready-made meals and semi-finished products. There is no specified minimum duration of symptoms, but they must be severe enough to cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other functioning.


The importance of support and treatment


Eating disorders require a comprehensive therapeutic approach. Effective treatment typically involves:


  • Psychological therapy: including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, and interpersonal therapy.


  • Dietary support: working with a dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan.


  • Medical care: monitoring the patient's health status, treating nutritional deficiencies, and other health complications.


  • Social support: support groups and education for family and loved ones.


It's important for individuals suffering from eating disorders and their loved ones to seek help as early as possible. Early intervention can significantly improve prognosis and lead to better recovery.


It's essential to carefully examine each case related to deviations in eating habits. Not every deviation meets the criteria for an eating disorder. Often, the root cause of nutritional problems is a lack of skill and knowledge in managing diet.


Frequently, one may encounter a typical approach of a temporary, aggressive calorie deficit lasting from a few days to several weeks to quickly reduce body fat mass. As a result, the person on such a restrictive diet reaches a point that ends in binge-eating. This is a natural response of the body to replenish drastic decreases due to starvation. It's highly probable that implementing such restrictions will lead to moments of weakness associated with intense hunger, as well as mental and physical exhaustion, resulting in binge eating. Binge eating, in turn, will result in feelings of guilt and reduced agency, potentially leading to further binge eating episodes to regulate emotions and mood improvement.


Health
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Attachment Styles and Eating Disorders:


There's a lot of discussion these days about attachment styles and their impact on our lives. The attachment style formed in early childhood has a lasting effect on our relationships and decisions in adulthood. Individuals with a secure attachment style typically have healthier and more satisfying relationships. On the other hand, those with an anxious attachment style may struggle with closeness and trust in their relationships. Being aware of your own attachment style can help in building better and more fulfilling relationships. Research shows a correlation between eating disorders and attachment styles.


Individuals with insecure or avoidant attachment styles may have difficulty forming close emotional relationships, making it challenging for them to open up to help in treating eating disorders. They may also succumb to social pressure related to appearance and eating habits, leading to negative eating patterns and difficulty maintaining healthy eating habits.


We encourage you to seek our assistance, where you will receive support and advice on proper nutrition. If you have any doubts or questions regarding eating disorders, please feel free to contact us to learn how to best tailor the program to your needs.


1. Insecure Attachment Style (Anxious-Ambivalent) – Engulfed Adulthood:


  • This style is very common among individuals with eating disorders, especially in the case of bulimia nervosa or obesity.


2. Avoidant Attachment Style (Avoidant-Fearful) – Distant Adulthood:


  • Commonly found in individuals with anorexia nervosa.


Understanding the relationship between attachment styles and eating disorders can help in better understanding the etiology of these disorders and in developing more effective therapeutic strategies. More information on this topic can be found here:


Summary


Eating disorders are serious health problems associated with unhealthy eating habits and an obsessive desire to control body weight, leading to severe physical and mental health consequences. They include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and muscle dysmorphia. Symptoms can vary but often involve drastic weight changes, obsession with food and calories, and health problems. Factors influencing the development of these disorders include genetics, social and cultural pressure, emotional stress, and trauma. Effective treatment requires a comprehensive approach, including psychological therapy, dietary support, and medical care. Early intervention significantly improves outcomes. Social support is also important, helping individuals with eating disorders on their path to recovery. Untreated eating disorders can lead to serious health issues such as heart damage, digestive problems, osteoporosis, and other severe conditions. If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder, it is crucial to seek help from a specialist. Therapy, dietary support, and medical care can assist in returning to healthy eating habits and improving quality of life.


For more information:


1. Diagnostic Criteria for Mental Disorders DSM-5 (Polish edition edited by Piotr Gałecki, Maciej Pilecki, Joanna Rymaszewska, Agata Szulc, Sławomir Sidorowicz, Jacek Wciórka) American Psychiatric Association.

2. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems ICD-11.

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