When it comes to eating and body image, disordered behaviors can have significant health impacts. These include malnourishment, which can damage the heart, brain, liver and kidneys; skeletal muscle loss; changes in hormone levels (including decreased oestrogen levels that can affect the reproductive organs and cause menstrual irregularities), and issues with core temperature regulation. It is also associated with depression and other mental illnesses, such as generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder.
Eating disorders are severe, life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical attention. But the onset of these eating behaviors may not be so obvious or immediate. That is why it’s important to recognize these abnormal behaviors and seek help from a mental and physical healthcare professional.
Disordered eating behavior is a broad term used to describe food- and weight-related behaviors that don’t meet the criteria for an official diagnosis of a recognized disorder such as anorexia nervosa, or AN, or bulimia nervosa, or BED, but are still causing negative health effects. It can look like limiting the number of foods you’re willing to eat, only eating certain types of foods, avoiding foods with certain textures or smells, using condiments excessively to make them more appealing, weighing yourself multiple times per day or engaging in extreme dieting practices such as fasting.
In addition to these behaviors, some people with disordered eating experience feelings of anxiety or shame around food and may isolate from others because they don’t want others to know about their dietary habits. This can lead to a lack of social support and an inability to handle everyday stressors.
There is a common misconception that only young white females are affected by disordered eating but the truth is that these behaviors can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race or age. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, men make up 25% of all cases of eating disorders and are often overlooked in treatment programs, which are largely female-centric.
Some examples of disordered eating are: Excessive or rigid exercise, consuming only liquids to maintain an extremely low body weight, a fear of gaining weight, excessive weight fluctuations, recurrent episodes of binge-eating, the formation of calluses on knuckles from reaching into mouths to induce vomiting, a loss of teeth due to repeated vomiting, the use of laxatives or excessive water intake, or a growth of soft hair all over the body called lanugo. The best way to determine if you have a disordered eating pattern is to visit your doctor or psychologist and talk about your concerns with them. They will be able to provide the necessary care and support that you need to overcome these eating-related difficulties. This includes nutritional therapy to ensure that you are getting the nutrition you need. You can also visit the website of the National Association of Eating Disorders for more resources. You can also find help and support for yourself or a loved one on the Beat Eating Disorders website.