South Africa – Although it has the word eating in it, eating disorders are serious conditions that can negatively impact a person’s health. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Around 70 million people suffer from an eating disorder globally.
Eating disorders do not only impact the amount of food a person eats or lack of it. Shuhaida Adam, Islamic Careline social worker, explained the disorder is not just about the food but also the way someone perceives it. If it goes untreated for some time, it can actually lead to the death of a person.
“It’s a complex mental health condition that drives unhealthy habits, thoughts, behaviours around food but also around weight, body image, body style and shape. These habits then can have extremely detrimental effects on your well-being, your physical health and it can be fatal. There are many fatal cases where people with eating disorders die of a condition relating specifically to that disorder.”
Eating disorders impact everyone
Up until recently eating disorders was seen as a condition that only women suffered from. Women are a lot more susceptible to eating orders compared to men. However, Adam noted the number of men who have eating disorders is growing. The problem is the stigma around it stops them from getting help.
“There are a growing amount of men who are presenting with eating disorders. Due to the nature of stigma in communities or just the understanding or misunderstanding that men don’t have eating disorders, a lot of men don’t actually seek treatment for it.”
They create unhealthy eating habits and more. The stigma around it prevents them from getting help for it and this can often lead to disastrous outcomes.
Symptoms of anorexia
There are different types of eating disorders and each one carries their own symptoms. Symptoms include physical, mental, and emotional changes. To diagnose an eating disorder, Adam explained they look at behaviours which are present for at least 6 weeks to 3 months.
“Most people are aware of anorexia. I think there’s a big understanding around it. It’s the restriction of food and an obsessive focus on attaining thinness. The person believes they are overweight even if they are not overweight.”
There are different types of anorexia, but they mainly focus on people believing they are overweight when they actually are not. Some suffer from purging anorexia. This is when a person vomits out their food or uses laxatives. This form of anorexia can be very dangerous as it can lead to many health complications.
“This of course is very damaging to the body. Your body is not getting the nutrients it needs. It’s not getting its support. It cannot function on its own … Oftentimes you’ll find that they are covered up. Even if it’s very hot weather, they are covered up. They start developing fine hairs on their body as a means of protecting them from the cold because they have no body fat.”
They also find it hard to concentrate, their sleeping patterns are disrupted as well as their menstrual cycles. All these things get impacted negatively when the body doesn’t have enough nutrients. Their immune system also doesn’t function as well.
Symptoms of bulimia
Bulimia is a life-threatening condition. Although binge eating might not sound dangerous, it very well is. People with bulimia will binge eat, feel guilty and follow it up with purging out their food. The binge eating might not happen in front of people, rather they will do it in private, said Adam.
“This bingeing they become ashamed of it. They hide it. You’ll find that people with bulimia binge secretly. In person they may often be sitting with the family or eating as normal with everybody but then the bingeing is done in secret. It could be very unhealthy foods. They then feel extremely guilty about this binge, ashamed of themselves. They also believe their weight is extremely impacted so they will purge all this food.”
This purging is different from those with anorexia. This purging isn’t done for portion control. People with bulimia actually maintain a relatively normal weight. Their symptoms will be different from anorexic people. One of the symptoms is the enamel of their teeth will be eroded away from the constant vomiting.
Why do people have eating disorders
There are various reasons that can cause an eating disorder. From personality traits, and environmental influences such as childhood experiences to traumatic events. Adam has also found a gene might be responsible for eating disorders.
“One interesting thing I found is that genetically there’s a certain gene that more women have. The effect of that gene makes women a bit more susceptible to eating disorders. It affects the view of yourself and how you view your body and your body weight. If there is someone in your family who has an eating disorder, then you are more likely to have a similar eating disorder as well.”
There is also the influence of the media and magazines. Cultural beauty standards will also impact a person and they may feel the need to conform to that. Another reason are people who unknowingly support your eating disorder. They may compliment the new diet and look, and this will give the person the confidence to continue.
Treatment for eating disorders
Eating disorders require more than just talking sessions. They are serious conditions and as such, patients need to be monitored by a physician and a therapist.
“It requires quite intense therapy. Someone with an eating disorder is going to require a medical intervention with the help of nutritional experts and medical doctors because the eating disorder has done quite a bit of damage to your organs.”
Medication might also be required to help rectify the loss of nutrients. It is important that family members also provide support. An eating disorder is not something that can be overcome easily.
Slowly the stigma of eating disorders is being removed from society. However, the stigmas that remains still hampers men when it comes to them getting support. It is important to remove these stigmas so that people get the help they need.