The Thing with Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is more than just a 'body problem,' it's a mental illness that affects and could destroy multiple facets of the sufferer's life, and maybe even the life itself. With both hereditary and environmental factors, like social and personal life, at play, a lot more people than we care to believe suffer from EDs in some regard. Outward signs may not always be as visible as one would assume, but here are a few good indicators I've found when someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder.
What is Eating You?
More than just closely "watching what you eat" people with eating disorders, specifically those with restrictive eating tendencies, often obsess over what they eat, counting every single calorie and memorizing every nutrition labels. Thoughts like 'what will happen if I eat?' and 'how will I get rid of these calories?' are constantly whirling through their head. These intrusive and compulsive thoughts can easily consume their daily lives, making day-to-day tasks exponentially more stressful than necessary, as they are constantly thinking about how to avoid food or stay on their 'diet plan.'
People speak of 'going on a diet' fairly regularly, but getting to the point where food controls your life is abnormal and shouldn't be brushed off. Exercising constantly or to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis, especially on little to no nutrition, is very dangerous and is often a sign of bigger problems. The body needs fuel to burn, and while losing weight is necessary for some people to regain a healthier lifestyle; drastic, or otherwise seemingly unhealthy weight loss is cause for concern.
Eating, or the lack thereof, is an extreme source of anxiety and stress for people who have eating disorders. The constant thought of wanting, or needing, food, but not wanting to crack and lose control is always present on the mind. The main concern for most people who suffer from bulimia is that once they start eating they might not have the ability to stop, and this is generally what happens. The process of losing control and binging on incredibly large amounts of unhealthy foods, feeling guilty, purging the food, then feeling guilty once again, is self perpetuating and seems never ending. Outward sources of stress may include school, work, finances, family problems, or anything of the sort. These things can trigger or worsen an ED.
Those with disordered eating issues may be very short tempered when faced with a family meal or someone forcing them to eat. Irritability is a likely outcome in those situations. Everyone copes with stress differently and, as mentioned before, an eating disorder is more than just an eating problem. It is a form of self harm, often viewed as a way to punish your body for things you logically cannot control, but you feel that you should be able to. The only thing you are able to control is your body, so you do exactly that, and you take control in the only way you know how. Anxiety can cause the individual to be short tempered and snap at seemingly ridiculous actions or suggestions, things that would appear minute and unimportant to an outside observer. Accompanying the stress from the disorder itself, secondary problems such as malnutrition, migraines, and various forms of pain as the body tries to function on minimal food will contribute to the shortened temper.
Finding stashes of food or food wrappers and empty food containers in the trash or hidden away is a pretty clear indicator that someone is binging on food. Binge eaters tend to be very secretive with their eating habits and may ONLY eat when alone, leading them to spend exorbitant amounts of time alone, locked in their room or somewhere else. Increased reclusive behavior may be a giveaway that something more is going on. Likewise, leaving a table directly after a meal and heading to the bathroom may be another sign that there is something dangerous at play.
Visibly, other than that 'anorexic' look, the stereotypical emaciated look that pops into your head when you hear of someone suffering from an eating disorder, there are many signs that someone may be suffering from malnutrition due to an eating disorder. Brittle hair or hair loss may accompany a vitamin or mineral deficiency. A pasty or washed out complexion accompanied by unusual lethargy or sluggish behavior could also indicate a lack of necessary nutrients. Of course, for this kind of thing the list is ever growing. A noticeable change in the behaviors, mood, or appearance of someone you care for will be easy to spot. These behaviors should most certainly be questioned. As with any illness, the sooner it is caught, the easier it is to treat.
Recognizing one or two of these things may mean nothing major. A stash of food hidden away in the bedside table may just be your mother's sweets stash and brittle hair may be the result of a lack of variety in your diet. But a culmination of these things could, and should, sound the alarm bells.
What it Boils Down To
Eating disorders are not glamorous. They aren't beautiful, airbrushed models with their hip bones on display. They are not uber thin girls on blogging websites with their hair in messy buns and their hipster clothing adorned bodies. I'm not saying they couldn't be, but those things do not even begin to cover the mental aspects, what makes up the bulk of these illnesses.
They are stress. They are constant worry and thought about what you're consuming and how it is consuming you, what drastic measures you're going to take to rid your body of the calories - whether it's exercise, purging, or something else entirely. EDs are men and women crying and contemplating terrible things because they ingested too much and believe they didn't deserve to fuel themselves at all. It's a form of self harm and control when everything else seems to be in tatters around them.
Eating disorders are a clinical thing, but I find it challenging to write from an objective perspective on something that is so subjective in makeup. The mental implications of any eating disorder wear away at your brain's framework. Similar to cancer, the earlier they are caught and intervention is enacted, the higher the recovery rate. No sickness should be left to metastasize to the point of no return.
It is a terrible thing to step on the scale and be proud of the progress you have made, only to look in the mirror and see nothing but flab and rolls of fat disguising what you feel you're supposed to look like. The only things that pop out are what you perceive to be imperfections, the only thought in your head is how the pitiful handful of calories you've consumed in the day are ruining your body further, and how you intend to be 'better' for the rest of the day and the coming days.
Currently in the US, 10 million men and twice as many women have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life. One fifth of the people who develop anorexia nervosa will die from it, as only one out of every 10 individuals diagnosed with it seek will treatment. There is no cure for an ED or body dysmorphia, but treatment can drastically change the outcome of someone's life.
If someone confides in you about their eating disorder encourage them to seek help. They would not tell you if they didn't want help on some level, maybe even subconsciously. They may not be aware of some of the unapparent damages their habits can cause them to suffer, or they may be choosing to push these thoughts to the wayside in favor of their disorder.
Glancing over any magazine stand in any store anywhere in the world makes it easy to understand why so many men and women feel inferior and look at themselves in such a negative light. Celebrities and models are put on a pedestal being kept in suspension by surgical procedures, scalpels, PhotoShop, and tens of thousands of dollars. Being sickly thin with an abnormally low BMI is portrayed as the norm. It isn't. It's vitally important to keep that in mind.
Our bodies were made to carry fat. That does not make us fat. That makes us human.