Till about 10- 12 years ago I hadn’t ever come across a phrase called eating disorder. Like most preteens I had my fair share of the chicken soup series, it was one of those books that first introduced me to the word bulimia.
The story was of a 16 year old girl who had first started purging when she was 15, it began slow and it never worried her. Her description of it was “whenever I felt too bloated a puked and all was well”. Over a year this slowly escalated to a point where she could keep no food down. She had to tell everything to her mother and get the required treatment. To say that the 11 year old me was horrified would be an understatement.
“But why would someone do that?” was my first thought, “how did she not realize” might have been my second. What stuck with me from the story is that, to that young girl nothing was amiss, nothing was wrong, it was all ok. She didn’t even realize that she has developed something called an eating disorder, till it got too bad. Later, on reading up about it I discovered that eating disorders usually start like that, people don’t realize what they are doing till it’s too late.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a psychological condition that causes one to have an unhealthy relationship with food. The key underlying aspect of eating disorders is body image. People suffering from these disorders are extremely focused on their body image, their weight and how they look. This obsession leads to dangerous eating behaviors that have a severe impact on physical and mental health. Usually, these disorders start in adolescence or as young adults.
Anybody can develop an eating disorder but it is most commonly seen in adolescents and young women. In recent years however there has been a rise in the cases of eating disorders in men. According to DSM-5 the general female to male prevalence ratio is 10:1.
Types of eating disorder
There are three most common types of eating disorders.
People with this disorder view themselves as overweight, despite the evidence being contrary. They will avoid certain types of food and constantly measure their weight. They are extremely fearful of growing “fat”.
- Obsession with weight and being thin
- Being considerably underweight such that it is evident by appearance
- Extremely restrictive eating patterns
- A distorted body image, they usually perceive themselves to be severely overweight despite being dangerously underweight.
This is another well-known disorder. People with this disorder go through periods of binge eating in which they would consume more food than necessary. Post the binge eating episode they tend to compensate for it by purging, or using laxatives to avoid gaining weight.
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating with a lack of control
- Recurrent episodes of purging as a compensation for the binge eating
- A debilitating fear of gaining weight
- Acid reflux
- Sore throat
3) Binge eating disorder
This is another common type of eating disorder. It is similar to bulimia in the sense that people with this disorder to engage in binge eating behaviours. However they do not engage in the compensatory purging behaviour. People with this disorder are often overweight.
- Eating large amounts of food in secret
- No sense of control while binge eating
- Feeling of distress and guilt after the binge eating episode
- Eating despite being completely full
Other types of eating disorder
The above-mentioned disorders are the most common types of disorder however there are other types of eating disorder that are discussed below.
- Pica: In this disorder people crave eating substances that are not food, these substances include chalk, dirt, soap, paper etc. it is most commonly observed in children, pregnant women and people with mental disabilities.
- Rumination disorder: If this word looks familiar, you probably read it in your science textbook while reading about the food habits of cows. Exactly as the name suggests, in this disorder the individual will regorge the food they previously swallowed and re-chew it to either swallow it again or spit it out. It can develop during infancy, childhood or adulthood.
- Restrictive/ avoidant food intake disorder: This is usually common in children and infants. People with this disorder would avoid certain food due to their dislike for certain foods, smells, tastes, or textures. It is important to note that this is not the same as being a picky eater.
A quick google search on the causes of eating disorders will give you a set of biological reason and the underlying personality traits that may make someone vulnerable to the disorder. I would not disagree with them at all, however in my understanding the biggest causal factor is the media and the content we consume on a day-to-day basis.
I began this article with a story and how I was appalled and I wondered what caused it, two years later as I started paying more attention to the world around me, I very well understood the reason. Being thin was the way to go, low rise jeans were in style, people with healthier bodies were never represented. I started noticing magazine covers, tape measures wrapped around a seemingly “perfectly” bodied woman, with titles like “10 tricks to lose weight and keep it off”. The fashion world seemed to be catered to stick thin people. It was so easy to be misguided and walk down the path towards an eating disorder.
Even today, we are no better, the trends have changed, but the obsession with thin isn’t gone.
COVID 19 and Eating Disorders
While the world is grappling with the ongoing pandemic, an article by Global News has rightly termed the surge in eating disorders a “shadow pandemic”.
According to Sickkids hospitals there has been a rise in the cases of eating disorders since the onset of COVID 19. The hospital also said that not only are the kids with eating disorder getting younger they are also getting sicker.
The pandemic has disrupted our lives in many ways, but it has had profound effects both on our physical and our mental health. Eating disorders are likely to be aggravated in the pandemic especially in vulnerable groups.
One reason for this is the how the current situation has taken away any form of routine from us, with our sleep and work schedules completely out the window, our eating patterns haywire and exercise schedules absent, people are likely to get more obsessed with their weight.
Second, since there is an absence of social support, an individual is likely to feel more stressed when cannot reach the support systems they had previously generated.
Third, we are consuming media more rapidly than before, and most of it is about not gaining weight during the pandemic. Hence, it is much easier to be triggered and increase ED risk. In addition to this the already elevated stress and lack of social support can contribute to increase risk of the development of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are extremely serious and possibly fatal illnesses. An early and effective treatment plan is crucial for the recovery. Fortunately, there are many pathways to recovery today, these include therapy, medication, in-house treatments, nutritional counseling. The journey is a long one, but one that is key to living a healthy life.
Additionally, we as a society need to fix our ideas. From our fatphobic thoughts to associating health with how thin someone is, we are part of the problem. Social media makes it no less easy, with people having the liberty to openly say whatever they want to, no matter how wrong it is. We have created a toxic world for ourselves, and it is time we stop and look at what we have done and where we are headed.
The scale can only give you a numerical reflection of your relationship with gravity. That’s it.
It cannot measure character, beauty, talent, purpose, strength.