What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a range of problems related to food and body image that affect a person’s life and well-being. Many people, especially women, feel unhappy about their bodies, and diet or worry about food. Eating disorders develop when these worries lead to, for example, an intense fear of fat, an obsession with food and weight, and the belief that a slim body shape is crucial for self-worth. The most serious eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Eating disorders mainly affect females, with males accounting for around 10 per cent of cases, although the secretive nature of the disorder makes it hard to determine how many people are affected. In Australia, it is roughly estimated that five per cent of females have anorexia nervosa, and two to three per cent have bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening illness that leads to a dangerously low body weight. It is characterised by dieting, purging behaviours - such as vomiting or taking laxatives - and over-exercising. People may practise only one, or a number, of these methods.

People with anorexia often see themselves as fat, even when they are emaciated. They are obsessed with eating behaviours, such as strange eating rituals, only eating alone and collecting recipes and preparing meals for others but not joining them to eat. Starvation due to anorexia can be fatal.

Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is characterised by periods of binge eating, which is eating large amounts of food in a rapid, automatic and powerless fashion. Binges are then compensated for by dieting, purging behaviours - such as vomiting or taking laxatives - and over-exercising. People may practise only one or a number of these methods.

People with bulimia often feel helplessly trapped in this cycle and ashamed of their behaviour. They can withdraw from social gatherings and are fearful of being found out. Unlike anorexia nervosa, bulimia is generally not fatal and sufferers are of normal weight or above.

Other eating disorders and related problems
Some people may show several features associated with eating disorders but not fulfil all the criteria for a specific illness. Binge eating disorder is one common example, which is characterised by bingeing without compensating, often resulting in weight gain.

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders arise from a complex mix of factors, such as:

  • Cultural - Western society's idealisation of thinness and the 'perfect' body as synonymous with beauty and success. This belief encourages dieting, which predisposes an individual towards eating problems.
  • Personal - Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and loneliness, as well as problematic family and personal relationships.
  • Genetics – A history of the disorder in the family

Once the pattern has started, eating disorders may become self-perpetuating.Dieting, bingeing and purging help some people cope with painful emotions and gain a degree of control over their lives. However, these behaviours also undermine health, self-esteem and a sense of competence and control.

How are eating disorders treated?

Serious eating disorders generally call for a comprehensive treatment plan, usually involving a variety of health professionals, such as GPs, dieticians, psychiatrists and psychologists, who aim to:

  • Normalise weight and eating patterns, structure eating behaviours, focus on dieting patterns and, in the case of anorexia nervosa, set realistic weight targets.
  • Target the psychological aspect of the disorder and provide effective therapeutic treatments.
  • Build self-esteem and improve self-awareness.
  • Enhance social and family functioning which can be an imperative part of recovery.

Unfortunately, some people may continue to deny the problem even after diagnosis by a physician. This is especially the case in anorexia nervosa sufferers. If someone is dangerously thin and malnourished, they may require long-term treatment and/or hospitalisation.

Who can help?

The shame that often accompanies eating disorders and related behaviours can prevent people from seeking help, but it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. The longer abnormal eating behaviours persist, the more difficult it is to overcome the disorder and its effects on the body. The APS Psychologist Referral Service can help you find an APS Psychologist with experience in treating and managing eating disorders.