Man’s relationship with food is one of the most beautiful yet complex equations ever known. Food brings so much nourishment and joy to humans, and yet it has reached a position where there is more fear associated with it, than happiness. 

The intertwining of a variety of social and cultural influences has placed increasing emphasis on thinness as a standard of beauty and success. 

The desire for the perfect body has forced many people of this generation to develop a complicated relationship with food and eating and caused the rise of dieting as a constant companion. 

Over the years, this quest has led to many problematic lifestyle choices for people, and severe mental health problems, such as eating disorders. Let’s find out more about eating disorders, their causes and their types. 

Introduction to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental health disorders that affect your eating behaviours and relationship with food. They may cause an unhealthy obsession with food and the consequences of eating, body weight, and body image, leading to severe disturbances in thoughts and emotions, and the inability to function in various areas of life. 

Eating disorders involve dangerous eating trends and practices which can affect an individual’s health and push him/her to the extremes of malnutrition or obesity. 

Over time, they can also cause significant harm to your teeth, mouth, digestive system, heart, and bones, and lead to other diseases.

Many eating disorders are more common in women, but they can affect people of all genders, ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and body weights.

Causes And Risk Factors For Developing Eating Disorders

A single cause of eating disorders is not yet known. Research suggests that a complex interaction of biological and genetic factors, psychological aspects, and sociocultural influences gives rise to eating disorders. Some of these factors are:

  • Biology: Brain systems have been studied by researchers to understand how eating disorders affect their normal functioning. Certain changes in your brain chemicals, including serotonin and dopamine, may play a role in eating disorders.

  • Genetics: As per research, genetics play a substantial role in the development of eating disorders. You may have genes (the basic physical and functional unit of heredity) that increase your risk of developing eating disorders.

  • Family history: As per studies, you are more likely to develop an eating disorder if you have family members with an eating disorder, although not necessarily the same one.

  • Personality traits: Certain attributes are also associated with an increased risk of developing eating disorders, including perfectionism, impulsivity, harm avoidance, reward dependence, sensation seeking, neuroticism, obsessive-compulsiveness, low self-esteem, and low cooperativeness.

  • Acceptable ideals of thinness: Society has set seemingly unachievable ideals of thinness. Excessive dissatisfaction with appearance may make you overvalue your weight, increasing your concern about gaining weight and impacting self-worth.

  • Involvement of family and friends: Your family and peers provide a model for eating behaviours. They may express concerns about weight and appearance and can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

  • Abusive history: Past instances of bullying, sexual abuse, troubled family and personal relationships, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, and past diagnosis of mental health disorders can also cause eating disorders.

Types of Eating Disorders

The three most commonly known eating disorders are:

1. Anorexia Nervosa: It is a life-threatening eating disorder characterised by self-starvation and weight loss resulting in abnormally low weight for an individual's height and age. People with this disorder have an extreme fear of becoming fat. 

Individuals with anorexia may resort to excessive dieting and exercising to maintain low body weight, even when they are already underweight. 

Such extreme behaviour can lead to fainting spells and cause the individuals to be malnourished. The eating disorder can have severe adverse effects on health, including heart rhythm abnormalities, kidney problems, and seizures.

2. Bulimia Nervosa: It is an eating disorder characterised by episodes of bingeing (eating large amounts of food in a short period of time) and purging (getting rid of food from the body). Individuals suffering from this disorder may feel a lack of control over what and how much they are eating. 

The binges are typically followed by compensatory behaviour such as vomiting, exercising, fasting, or using laxatives (a medicine that helps you empty your bowels) to prevent weight gain.

People with bulimia nervosa may be ashamed or embarrassed by their behaviour and behave secretively. They may not appear to be underweight and thus the disorder may go unnoticed. 

3. Binge Eating Disorder: As the name suggests, individuals with this disorder have episodes of binge eating in which they consume large quantities of food in a brief period. They are distressed by the bingeing and feel a loss of control over their eating behaviour. 

However, unlike bulimia nervosa, individuals suffering from binge eating disorder do not commonly use compensatory behaviour to get rid of the food after bingeing. 

Binge eating is a long-term health issue and can lead to serious problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases.

There are a few more eating disorders that are gaining prominence and include:

  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): This eating disorder involves a change in eating behaviour, such as avoiding certain food items, due to factors other than the fear of gaining weight. 

  • Pica: It involves eating things that are not considered food, such as dirt, soil, chalk, soap, paper, hair, and cloth.

  • Rumination disorder: It is a condition in which an individual repeatedly regurgitates (brings back to the mouth) and rechews food after eating it. 

Eating disorders often exist alongside other psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse problems. They can be treated with a combination of medication, counselling, psychotherapy, and nutritional therapy. 

If you observe persistent signs of trouble with your eating behaviours or know someone in need of help, do not hesitate to seek advice from a mental health professional.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.