Eating disorders are serious medical illnesses that can cause grave physical problems, such as heart problems or kidney failure. Often, they are combined with other problems, such as stress, anxiety, depression, and drug abuse. Eating disorders frequently begin during adolescence. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia (people eat too little because they perceive themselves as fat), bulimia (sufferers eat, but then force themselves to throw up, for similar reasons as people with anorexia) and binge eating (which causes people to have sessions when they over-eat in large amounts).
People who suffer from anorexia basically starve their bodies, which results in a state of exhaustion from lack of nourishment. This lack of nutrition can affect the body in many ways:
- low blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate
- hair loss and broken nails
- absence of menstruation
- growth of lanugo (soft, fine hair that can grow on any part of the skin)
- dizziness or an inability to concentrate
- joint swelling
- fragile bones
Someone who weighs at least 15 percent less than the average weight for their height usually lacks sufficient body fat to maintain their organs and other body parts healthy. In extreme cases, eating disorders can result in extreme malnutrition, and even death.
In the case of bulimia, frequent vomiting and a lack of nutrition can cause the following problems:
- constant stomach pain
- damage to the stomach and kidneys
- dental cavities (due to the frequent exposure to stomach acid)
- puffy cheeks, when the saliva glands become permanently inflamed as a result of frequent vomiting
- absence of menstruation
- a loss of potassium (which can contribute to heart problems, and can even lead to death)
A person with binge eating disorder generally gains a lot of weight, and thus is at risk for getting diabetes, heart problems, and other illnesses related to obesity, not to mention indigestion, and feelings of guilt, depression, and shame.
Eating disorders can also cause emotional problems and relationship problems. When someone is obsessed with their weight, it’s difficult for them to concentrate on anything else. It can be exhausting and overwhelming to try to control your food intake and get exercise, besides being in a state of constant stress about food and your own appearance. It’s no wonder that people who suffer from an eating disorder often become lonelier and less sociable.
Eating disorders can also consume a great amount of mental energy. People who suffer from them can become obsessed with planning what to eat; how to avoid eating; planning a binge; getting money to buy food, laxatives, or other medicines; inventing excuses to go to the bathroom after eating, or thinking about how to tell the people around them that they want to be alone after a meal; etc.
Treatment of eating disorders
Fortunately, it’s possible to treat eating disorders. People who suffer from these diseases can recuperate and gradually learn to correct their eating habits. Eating disorders involve both body and mind; consequently, treatment and rehabilitation should be in the care of doctors, mental health professionals, and nutritionists.
In many cases, family therapy is key for helping restore healthy eating habits. Parents and other family members play an important role in supporting someone who needs to gain back weight and who is afraid to do so; who needs to deal with stress or other emotional problems without compulsive eating; or who needs to accept the shape of his or her own body in the face of the unrealistic standards presented by our culture.
Learning to feel comfortable with being at a healthy weight is a process. It takes time to unlearn behaviors and habits and replace them with other, healthier ones. Be patient; you can learn to accept your own body, understand your eating habits, and discover the relationship between your feelings and food. We must always remember that it’s important to face these difficulties with competent professionals and, above all, to have support of our own family.
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