Some thoughts we have in our everyday lives are so “sticky” that even though we know they don’t make sense, they are really hard to let go of. For the person suffering an eating disorder, or body obsession, these thoughts interfere every single day, making them feel compelled to act in ways that are ultimately harmful to themselves.
Why are we so obsessed with looks?
Body dissatisfaction is a top ranked issue in young Australians, over 70% of girls in Australia wish to be thinner, while the equivalent percentage of boys wish to be either thinner or bigger. In our society thinness is often associated with being attractive and successful, often supported by images in the media, emphasis on "healthy weight," and fat shaming talk.
Every time we look in the mirror and pick out the bits and pieces of ourselves we don’t like, damage is occurring, self-esteem damage. Over time this dissatisfaction with the self erodes our confidence in not just how we look, but how we feel other people perceive us, for some people, leading them to rely on praise from others to inform them of their worth.
Developing an Eating Disorder
While the average person may not be completely satisfied with how they look, this dissatisfaction can lead to such consequences as self-starvation or self-induced vomiting when people become fixated on changing their body shape. These practices usually don't achieve the desired outcome and can result in feelings of disappointment, guilt, shame, and actually increase body dissatisfaction and risk for developing an eating disorder.
It is estimated that one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder. Myths of eating disorders describe them as a "lifestyle choice" which undermines the seriousness of the disorder, and strength of the thoughts behind the dangerous relationship with food. Eating disorders are not a "cry for attention," eating disorders are often hidden and denied, and cannot be resolved without support and treatment.
- Anorexia Nervosa: Characterised by extreme weight loss, can occur with purging behaviour such as vomiting, laxative use, or extreme exercise. Distorted body view, denial of seriousness of weight loss, self-evaluation in terms of appearance and intense fear of getting "fat."
- Bulimia Nervosa: Seen with binge eating followed by purging behaviour to "get rid" of the food by vomiting, laxatives, enemas, medication, fasting or excessive exercise. A "binge" occurs when an individual eats a large amount of food in a short period of time and experiences a sense of lack of control over eating at the time.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Characterised by binge eating behaviour without the purging behaviour following a binge.
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ENDOS): Used to describe eating issues with are mild to moderate have atypical behaviours, and do not easily fit into a specified eating disorder.
Warning signs and symptoms of Eating Disorders
- Sudden changes in weight or weight loss;
- Cold sensitivity;
- Trouble concentrating;
- Feeling, dizzy, faint and weak;
- Signs of vomiting, such as damage to teeth, bad breath, swelling around jaw and cheeks;
- Loss or disturbance to menstruation in women.
- Repetitive dieting, fasting, skipping meals, and avoiding certain food groups;
- Binge eating;
- Vomiting or laxative abuse;
- Excessive or compulsive exercising;
- Obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating;
- Avoidance of meals with other people;
- Giving excuses for missed meals or denying hunger;
- Eating slowly;
- Secretive behaviour around food, e.g. hiding food;
- Social withdrawal;
- Excessive or obsessive body checking behaviour;
- Clothing style change, e.g. wearing more baggy clothing.
- Preoccupation with food, weight and body shape;
- Distorted body image;
- Extreme body dissatisfaction;
- Using food as comfort or punishment;
- Feeling 'out of control';
- 'Black and white' thinking patterns;
- Moodiness and irritability, particularly around food;
- Anxiety and/or depression;
- Anxiety around gaining weight;
- Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism around weight, body shape, eating and exercise habits;
- Low self-esteem.
Health consequences of Eating Disorders?
There are many adverse health effects from eating disorders, including:
- Kidney problems;
- Muscle loss and weakness;
- Constipation or diarrhoea;
- Heart problems and risk of heart failure;
- Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis;
- Teeth decay;
- Abdominal pain;
- Bowel disease.
What can you do if you, or someone you love may have an Eating Disorder?
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it is essential to seek professional help as soon as possible. Don't be discouraged if you are met with denial and anger, it is not personal but born of feelings of anxiety and shame. Set limits, communicate with them as openly as you can, providing them with support and encouragement to seek treatment.
Where weight loss has resulted in significant health complications, a stay in hospital may be required to treat malnutrition.
Treatment for eating disorders aim to improve our relationship with food and with our image of self. A multi-disciplinary approach utilising psychological counselling, nutritional input and medical management is ideal.
Trust is key in working with obsessions with body shape, weight and food. Strong, obsessional thoughts involved in negative self-image requires comfort and confidence in the professionals involved.
Where possible, family intervention with eating disorders is crucial. After a good working relationship is established with all members, treatment will focus on a family centred approach whereby information is provided, healthy eating and exercise patterns established, with family relationships strengthened and supported.
For further information on Eating Disorders, please visit the following websites for organisations with information and support for people and families suffering with eating disorders:
- The National Eating Disorders Collaboration www.nedc.com.au
- Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders www.cedd.org.au
- Butterfly Foundation www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au
- The National Eating Disorders Association www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.
- Mission Australia. (2011).
- Ricciardelli, L. A., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Children's body image concerns and eating disturbance: A review of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 325-344.
- The National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (2014). 8 tips for dealing with an eating disorder. NSW: NEDC.