Eating Disorders & Mental Health | ZwavelStream.co.za
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Eating Disorders and Mental Health

In observation of Health Awareness Month, we’re looking at the various ways that underscore the significant connection between body and mind. In previous posts we addressed how physical health impacts mental health and in the case of eating disorders this connection is most amplified. The first thing that needs emphasis is that an eating disorder is a mental illness. This conclusion was reached because eating disorders are characterized by factors that are also true for mental health problems – a) feeling unhappy/unfulfilled in life and b) decreased quality of life as a result of the problem. As humans, our relationship with food is vital to our survival. It’s necessary for all functions in both our mind and body. The breakdown of this most basic relationship is a sign that something is not quite right. Many people believe that eating disorders are a choice made by those who want to maintain a low weight. However, an unhealthy relationship with food speaks to deeper mental health problems, and can be present in anyone no matter their weight.

Different Types of Eating Disorders

The main disorders we will be looking at are Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder.

Anorexia, or Anorexia Nervosa, affects people of any gender or age and typically refers to the restricting of food intake to keep weight low. Bulimia, or Bulimia Nervosa, describes a pattern of consuming large amounts of food (binge eating), and then getting rid of it by taking laxatives, excessive exercise, or vomiting. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is compulsive overeating accompanied by feeling out of control, like you are unable to stop eating. Eating disorders, like most mental illnesses, don’t discriminate. These conditions affect all kinds of people with various psychological, biological, and cultural backgrounds. This implies that two people struggling with same eating disorder are likely to have two very different experiences. That being said, specialists in recent years have gained deeper understanding into the nature of eating disorders so as to pinpoint similarities and risk factors that can help with early intervention.

Risk factors for eating disorders fall within a biological, psychological, and sociocultural range. Biological risk factors include having a close relative – like a parent or sibling – who has an eating disorder or a close relative with a mental health condition. The psychological aspect of risk involves negative feelings about your body, rigid need for control, perfectionism, and pre-existing anxiety disorder. The sociocultural risk factors play a huge role in that they provide the environment in which an individual forms their personality and identity. If there exists a stigma around weight it can lead to bullying and teasing, because low weight is valued above all. Limited social support may leave someone feeling lonely and isolated, opening the way for negative feelings to compound and mental health issues to develop. In fact, the root to this problem sprouts from a fertile bed of not feeling good about yourself or the way you look, commonly referred to as Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental illness that changes an individual’s perception of their body. In a previous post we talked about how this negative body image can impact the quality of life and wellbeing of an individual, but more important is the influence BDD has on eating disorders. Studies have found that people with eating disorders usually also have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, engaging in extreme behaviours like dieting and exercise to change their physical appearance. On the contrary, people with BDD don’t necessarily go on to develop an eating disorder. Diets are common, yes, but the obsession is not with food or weight as is the case with eating disorders

Signs, Symptoms & Support

Since eating disorders are so complex, diagnosis is the first step to treatment and recovery. Only once you understand the nature of the disorder you’re dealing with, can you begin the journey to healing. Warning signs to the presence of an eating disorder, or the imminent onset of one range between physical, psychological, and behavioural. Some signs to look out for include:

• Constant dieting
• Evidence of vomiting after meals
• Cycles of binge eating
• Obsessive rituals surrounding food and food preparation
• Fluctuating weight
• Irregular periods (or periods stopping completely) in women
• Fainting or dizziness
• Fatigue
• Increase in obsession with appearance
• Negative body image
• Depression or anxiety
• Low self-esteem
• Deep fear of gaining weight
• Distorted perception of body (complains about being fat when in reality they’re not)

Treatment for an eating disorder can only be done through a specialist team that fully grasps the complexities and severity of these conditions. Here more than any other time, does the link between physical and mental health become critical, with treatment first addressing the most acute physical health implications before focusing on the psychological causes to promote recovery and healing. If you or someone you know shows any of the signs mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to speak to a medical professional about the possibility that you may have an eating disorder. Feel free to contact ZwavelStream Clinic if you would like more information.

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