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Eating Disorders

The Health Index

Eating disorder is a term to describe psychologically induced, addictive eating. It means that food intake is no longer based on physical needs or signals such as hunger and satiety, but on inner compulsions which the person concerned often rationalises and justifies.

Eating disorders are characterised by disturbed eating patterns, ranging from uncontrolled binges on large quantities of food to the refusal to eat anything at all. The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. There are often mixed forms, e.g. anorexia in combination with bulimia.

 

Obesity or any forms of over- or malnutrition resulting from other illnesses, such as depression or tumours, do not count as eating disorders.

What are the causes?

Experts believe that eating disorders may be caused by a combination of genetic and psychological factors. Research with twins separated at birth showed that, even having grown up in different families, if one twin acquired an eating disorder, so did the other. 

 

The personality traits neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are often linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Other potential causes include perceived pressures to be thin, cultural preferences for thinness, and exposure to media promoting such ideals.

 

This is supported by the fact that eating disorders are mostly unknown in non-Western cultures that do not have these ideals. More recent research suggested that differences in brain structure and brain chemistry may also contribute. Often eating disorders are preceded by a diet which, at a certain point, gets out of control and takes on a momentum of its own. Caution is especially important when your thoughts revolve solely around eating or not eating.

What are the symptoms?

There are many physical and behavioural symptoms of eating disorders which vary depending on the kind of eating disorder. Some are:

  • Weight fluctuations

  • Dental problems as a result of exposure to stomach acid (induced vomiting)

  • Mood swings

  • Menstrual irregularities

  • Digestive problems, such as stomach pains, acid reflux

  • Feeling cold all the time

  • Muscle weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent weighing or measuring the circumference of body parts

  • Avoidance of high-calorie, fatty or carbohydrate-rich foods

  • Omission of individual courses or whole meals

  • Chewing and spitting out food

  • Compulsive calorie counting, weighing food

  • Avoiding foods whose calorie content cannot be clearly determined

  • Use of sweeteners, fat substitutes or light products

  • Use of appetite suppressants as appetite control

  • Excessive consumption of liquids before meals

  • Avoiding eating in company

  • Use of constricting abdominal belts, tight clothing or muscle tension to create an early feeling of fullness when eating

How can a nutrition practitioner help?

Working with eating disorders is a particularly challenging area. Nutrition practitioners can help only if working in collaboration with other healthcare and medical professionals as part of a multi-disciplinary team. Nutrition practitioners will only work with clients with an active eating disorder or recent history of an eating disorder if they have undertaken specific training in addition to their initial practitioner training.

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