Eating disorders: a relationship with food

Eating disorders are chosen lifestyles based on how people perceive and associate themselves with food. These disorders are serious and can have severe negative consequences on a person’s physiological and psychological well-being if they are not treated. Some common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating.

Dr. Karine Nassar, a clinical psychologist at Mount Lebanon Hospital, explains in this article the differences between the disorders, their signs, symptoms, triggering factors, and how they can be treated.

How to differentiate eating disorders?
Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by persistent food deprivation in a controlled manner. Self-perception and the individual’s relationship with food, is reflected in their love of controlling everything around them related to their food intake (quantity, quality, time, place…). This leads individuals with the disorder to resort to laxatives and diuretics to help them detoxify their bodies and lose weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa will resort to certain behaviors that help hide their hunger such as excessive water intake.
It is commonly accepted that this disorder is more frequently diagnosed in females that are 16 years and older, however, many cases have been reported at ages as young as 8 years old.

Bulimia Nervosa
Unlike individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia tends to lead individuals to look for food and consume large quantities to compensate for a missing inner void and agony that they’re facing. However, their love to control their body image pushes them to purge after consuming food. The act of purging gives them a feeling of relief and comfort from their fears, anxiety and worries. It is also common to find individuals excessively engaged in physical activity.
The existing control in this disorder is over body image and not the food consumed, causing the recurrence to laxatives and diuretics to help them discard what has been consumed. Bulimia can stay hidden for years before getting exposed due to its physiological repercussion.

Binge Eating
Similar to bulimia, binge eating is defined by the love of food, hence the consumption of extremely large quantities within a certain time frame. Binge eaters do not resort to purging as body image is not a concern. Binge episodes can occur between 3 times a week to daily, combining both salty and sweet food items.
Contrary to both anorexia and bulimia, binge eating affects men and women equally. Individuals with this disorder eventually suffer from excessive weight gain, anxiety, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and sleep apnea.

Where can eating disorders lead?
Despite eating disorders being a lifestyle, they are still serious conditions that can lead to several health complications in the long run if they are left untreated. The most commonly encountered complications include:
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to imbalanced food intake
  • Organs malfunctions, mostly seen in large organs (heart, lungs, brain, digestive system…)
  • Reproduction difficulties, stillbirths, preterm deliveries, and unhealthy babies
  • Amenorrhea in women – the absence of a menstrual cycle
  • Certain diseases such as diabetes, ulcers, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension…
  • Psychological disturbances such as anxiety, depression….
How to detect an eating disorder problem?
Given the serious health complications that can arise from any of the 3 types of eating disorders, it is vital to take action when any of the following signs are observed:
  • Changes in behavior towards food
  • Counting calorie intake while participating in excessive physical activity
  • Purging, and the use of laxatives and diuretics without a medical reason
In bulimia and binge eating:
  • Eating secretly
  • Excessive food consumption within a time-frame
  • Addiction to food
In anorexia and bulimia:
  • Following strict diets
  • Addiction to controlling something, such as weight, body image, and food intake
  • Hiding their slim silhouette or trying to show it off is a sign of anorexia
What causes an eating disorder?
Previously, eating disorders were believed to be caused by the relationship between mothers and daughters. The influence of how a mother perceives herself, talks to her daughter about weight and food and, their leniency towards their daughter’s eating habits were all thought to be the cause of eating disorders.
Today it is believed to be a multifactorial disorder, developing due to the interaction of different factors, these include:
  • Social: peer pressure, images in the media, trends
  • Genetic: predisposition
  • Psychological: depression, anxiety, lack of self-esteem
  • Personal: relationship or familial problems, loss of a loved one
  • Financial or professional problems
Is it ever too late to treat eating disorders?
Treating eating disorders requires a team of specialized professionals in order to reach the best results, treatment can take between 6 months and 2 years. The team should be composed of:
  • A psychotherapist to discover the events that led to the disorders and to confront them
  • A psychologist to assist the individual face their feelings and psychological behaviors towards food
  • A specialized dietitian to set-up an appropriate eating plan and teach new eating habits
  • A support group to provide a place to express freely and share fears and experiences with others who suffer from similar disorders
Eating disorders are serious health conditions affecting people at a young age, they arise from various treatable factors and should not be overlooked. Food is an enjoyable part of our life and should not be a source of agony for anyone.

Enjoy food reasonably to enjoy life!

Dr. Karine Nassar
Clinical Psychologist
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