Eating disorders are described as a persistent disturbance of eating behaviour or behaviour intended to control weight, which significantly impairs health or psychosocial functioning. Eating disorders are more common in females, but can also occur in males. The three main eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Having an eating disorder can feel very lonely and isolating, as they are often kept secret from others. People with eating disorders can die as a result of the physical health problems caused by their relationship with food. Food deprivation and purging behaviours can result in osteoporosis, fertility problems and cardiovascular, intestinal or kidney problems. Some of these problems are reversed with weight gain and cessation of unhealthy weight control practices, however, a high proportion of people with eating disorders go on to develop a chronic illness.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of their age, gender or cultural background. There is no single cause that can explain why a person develops an eating disorder, rather, a combination of biological, psychological, familial and socio-cultural factors can make a person be more predisposed to developing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are characterised by a high level of comorbidity in connection with anxiety disorders, depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. Also linked to eating disorders are borderline or narcissistic disorders, obsessive-compulsive, avoidant, and dependent personality disorders, as well as issues with affect and impulse regulation, and self-esteem.
Research has also indicated that an individual’s genetic makeup or certain biological factors may have an impact on whether they develop an eating disorder. Being brought up in an environment where food and eating, weight or body shape have assumed a disproportionate significance, or being bullied because of one’s size or weight can also make a person predisposed to developing an eating disorder. So can being brought up in an over-protective or over-controlling environment, or in an environment with unrealistic expectations for achievement.
There are socio-cultural factors in the development of eating disorders which include cultural pressures that place high value on thinness and obtaining the “perfect” body, cultural norms that emphasise physical appearance rather than inner strengths and qualities, and persistent and pervasive media messages encouraging dieting.
Either way, an eating disorder can be seen as a way of coping with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence, as a reaction to stress or trauma, and as a way to avoid intense emotions and to exert control.
Recovery from an eating disorder is a slow process full of emotional turmoil. Breaking free of an eating disorder may be the toughest challenge of an individual’s life and they need support and guidance. Treatment involves establishing a regular and balanced eating pattern and exploring, addressing and resolving underlying emotional problems. As you progress through this journey, you will feel your self-esteem and self-worth grow, you will learn to better understand and manage your emotions, and you will develop healthier skills to help you deal with the ups and downs of life.