Dying to be thin – the facts on eating disorders
By Aishah Alattas
Eating disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses. The latest estimates show that around 8% of people suffer from an eating disorder over the course of their lifetime. Despite its high prevalence, eating disorders continue to be among the most under reported, under treated and misunderstood mental illnesses. This occurs on various levels – on the sufferers themselves who may be in denial that their thoughts and behaviours around food and body image are harmful to them; on friends and family who may discount the distress that comes with eating disorder, and lastly on mental health professionals who together with the patient and their caregivers, must overcome barriers to treating the disorder. Eating disorders can affect anyone at any point in our lives. With more knowledge and understanding, sufferers can recover. They can have a healthy relationship with food, eating and their bodies and live a fulfilling life.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are illnesses where people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviours. The behaviours relate to their thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become preoccupied with food and their body weight. Below is a list of types of eating disorders:
Starvation or extremely restricted eating with the intention of weight loss. May also include excessive exercise.
Cycles of binge eating and purging which may or may not include a starvation phase. Purging involves behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics and even excessive exercise.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating without purging. This disorder is different from the basic overeating which all of us may have experienced over the holidays where we take that extra helping of food. It is characterized by eating a significantly larger amount of food over shorter periods of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances. The person engaging in this behavior then feels guilty, embarrassed and a sense of loss of control.
Those who suffer from orthorexia are not focused on losing weight, but are fixated on the ‘purity’ of food. They are extremely selective, only eating foods that they deem to be absolutely healthy. Inevitably, these people eliminate most foods from their diet. Consequently, they become malnourished and may face negative physical and emotional effects.
Common myths and misconceptions
There are many assumptions that come with eating disorders. Many of this assumptions can hinder the recovery process. They can even add to the physical, emotional and psychological distress that comes with eating disorders. It is important to separate these myths from the facts. In so doing, we can understand ourselves or those who may be suffering with an eating disorder:
Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice
Eating disorders are more than just being ‘on a diet’. When we want to reach a healthy weight we may benefit from controlling what and how much we eat. The problem arises when these attempts have lost sight of their goal. This means there is no longer an ideal weight or health target. The sufferer becomes obsessed with ‘the perfect body’ and will work towards this illusion at all costs.
Eating disorders are about more than just food
Eating disorders are complex emotional and psychological disorders that manifest in the form of food and eating. A majority of people with eating disorders also suffer from a mood disorder and low self-esteem. These people see food as an all-powerful tool which he or she can focus on. They do this to gain a sense of control, numb painful emotions or gain approval or acceptance.
You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their weight
This misconception mostly relates to anorexia, where the assumption is that anyone with anorexia must me severely underweight when in fact this is not true all the time. All our bodies work differently and individual health factors, genetics and metabolic rates play a part in determining our weight. Indeed, multiple people with the exactly the same eating and exercise habits can come in many different shapes and sizes and the same applies to those with eating disorders. Instead of assuming that someone is suffering from an eating disorder by looking at their weight, it would be more beneficial to take note of their eating habits and ask them about their thoughts and feeling surrounding food and their bodies.
Eating disorders are not ‘female’ disorders
It is true that the majority of those with eating disorders are female, however, the gap between the two genders has been closing and increasingly more males have been diagnosed with eating disorders over time. Unfortunately, for males that suffer with eating disorders, the stigma of these disorders as being ‘female issues’ can further impede help-seeking behaviours and this has been thought to be one of the reasons why males that do present with eating disorders seem to be at the more severe end of the spectrum.
Eating disorders are not solely caused by the media
Eating disorders are often over attributed to the media and the ideal portrayal of a slimmer body. While media portrayal is a contributing factor, it is only a small part of a very large picture. Recent years have seen a shift in fashion trends and representation. The movement that ‘real women have curves’ is heavily promoted. Yet we still see anorexia at the same, if not a higher prevalence. Another fact to consider is that the ideal ‘skinny’ body was only promoted in western media. People in Africa or the Middle East, consider curvier figures as desirable, yet anorexia and other eating disorders still occur in these areas.
Someone I know has an eating disorder – next steps
Coming to terms with an eating disorder whether it is admitting it to yourself or recognizing it in a loved one is a huge step in itself and is a place that takes courage to arrive at. As with any other mental illness, it is important to seek professional help. Depending on where you are in the world and your circumstances this could be a GP, a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a counsellor in a variety of settings. With the help of these professionals, all parties involved can come up with a plan for the sufferer that takes into account nutritional intervention, psychotherapy and medical and psychiatric monitoring.There is a good chance that this multidisciplinary approach is able to rectify not only the behaviour but also the morbid thoughts and emotions. With this approach, recovery is possible and the sufferer can live to his or her full potential.
About the Author:
Aishah Alattas has a Master’s in affective disorders . She has extensive experience in working with individuals with mood, anxiety, eating and psychotic disorders and their care givers.
An advocacy in educating the public on mental health, Aishah is keen to reduce the stigma of mental illness at an individual, community and societal level.
She is currently working on expanding the scope on mental health intervention by using theatre and the arts and via digital platforms