Eating disorders are serious problems having to do with a person's preoccupation with food, weight and body image. This preoccupation can dominate the person's thoughts, feelings and behaviors and interfere with everyday activities. Eating disorders sometimes become so severe that they cause serious physical and emotional problems requiring hospitalization.
There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Teenage girls and young women are more likely than male counterparts and older adults to have anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, but binge-eating disorder equally affects both men and women of all ages. The different types of eating disorders have different symptoms and warning signs, but they may be influenced by similar underlying problems such as low self-esteem, poor body image, identity struggles and painful emotions that the person doesn't recognize or feels unable to face. The risk of an eating disorder could be higher for young people who have experienced military-related trauma, loss or difficult transitions.
Warning signs of anorexia nervosa
People with anorexia nervosa are obsessed with being thin. They may not realize how thin they are because the fear of gaining weight (or losing control) has distorted their body image. They may feel fat even when they appear to be emaciated. Anorexia signs and symptoms include:
- Dieting despite being thin
- Pretending to eat or lying about eating
- Obsession with weight, body shape or clothing size
- Using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics
- Preoccupation with food while eating very little
- Food rituals such as never eating in public or chewing food and spitting it out
Anorexia nervosa can take a toll on the body with complications such as menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation, constipation, dry skin, irregular heart rhythms, bone loss, low blood pressure and dehydration.
Warning signs of bulimia nervosa
People with bulimia nervosa are caught in a vicious cycle of binging and purging. That means eating 3,000 to 5,000 calories at a time, then trying to get rid of the extra calories by vomiting, abusing laxatives or exercising excessively. The ensuing shame and disgust leads to dieting and uncontrollable cravings followed by more binging. Many bulimics feel out of control but powerless to stop. Unlike anorexics, they're likely to have a normal body weight. Signs and symptoms of bulimia include:
- Eating unusually large amounts of food with no change in body weight
- Alternating between overeating and fasting
- Secrecy about eating such as hiding stashes of junk food or wanting to eat alone
- Going to the bathroom after eating to throw up
- Smell of vomit in the bathroom or on the person, as well as cover-up smells of mouthwash, mints, air freshener, etc.
- An unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
Bulimia nervosa can also harm the body. Complications may include damage to the teeth and gums from exposure to stomach acid when throwing up, sores in the throat and mouth or on hands used to induce vomiting, dehydration, abnormal bowel functioning and puffy cheeks from swollen salivary glands.
Warning signs of binge-eating disorder
People with binge-eating disorder regularly consume large quantities of food followed by feelings of guilt, shame and loss of control. Unlike bulimia, there's no attempt to get rid of the calories consumed. Binge eaters often eat when they're not hungry and continue eating when they feel full. Binge-eating disorder signs and symptoms include:
- Hiding or stockpiling food to eat in secret
- Eating normally around others but gorging when alone
- Feeling depressed, disgusted or embarrassed over the amount eaten
- Feeling helpless to control weight and eating habits
The most serious effect on the body of long-term binge eating is obesity. Obesity has many well-known complications including type-two diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease and sleep apnea.
What you can do
If you have, or someone close to you has, any of the signs or symptoms of one of the eating disorders, consider getting better educated about it. You can download a booklet on eating disorders from the National Institute of Mental Health. It's important to recognize that eating disorders can pose serious risks to a person's health, and even his or her life. Although each individual is different, it's typically very difficult to overcome the powerful pull of an eating disorder without professional help.
If your concern is for your child or a close friend, he or she will need your continued compassion and support, even if your offers of help are met with anger or defensiveness. Keep in mind that criticism, guilt trips or scare tactics are likely to make things worse. You may have to accept that you cannot fix the problem, but you can let the person know that you will be there to listen and offer your encouragement and support before, during and after the treatment process.
If you think you have an eating disorder, admitting you have a problem is usually the first step toward recovery. You may feel ambivalent about or resistant to the idea of giving up behavior that you can use to manage your feelings. You may resist change even if you're ashamed or disgusted by your eating behavior and know that it may be damaging to your physical and emotional health. But telling someone who can help is the next step. It could be your parents, a teacher, a chaplain or a military or civilian counselor.
Just remember that with treatment, you can free yourself from an eating disorder and get to know and value yourself as much more than your weight and body image. Treatment involves learning to recognize and deal with your emotions in healthy ways rather than using food-whether by obsessing about it, avoiding it or overeating. As a member of the military community, you can get treatment for an eating disorder and its underlying causes through your military treatment facility or TRICARE. Your primary care manager can provide a referral for medical care and counseling services, including specialized treatment programs for eating disorders. You can also speak with a Military OneSource consultant at 800-342-9647 if you need support in coping with a loved one's eating disorder.