We live in a time where every aspect of life is systematically exposed through our social media accounts. Our image, how our friends and social circle see us and, in extent, our self-confidence and self-acceptance are measured and, very often, defined by the number of likes we get on Facebook. Frequently – particularly where younger ages are concerned – the motive for us to engage in a pleasant activity (like socializing with friends or taking a day trip) is not purely the joy it offers. In fact, the acquiring of an original selfie that depicts us as beautiful, slim and shiny and its posting on the internet are equally powerful motives for any activity.
Indubitably, “image” plays a dominant role in our lives. Also, very frequently, it defines our “being” on many levels; unfortunately, not always in a good way and not without ugly consequences. Simultaneously, additional factors (like the modern way of life, the financial crisis, stress) are able to affect the mentality, the behavior in certain aspects of life, and, in extent, the health of modern people. All of the above combined can potentially have a significant impact on human health in the long run.
As a result of the above mentioned factors, a phenomenon increasingly recorded – among other things – is the fact that people develop so-called eating disorders. When it comes to health and life, eating disorders are anything but innocent; on the contrary, they can become very serious. Moreover, very often, the afflicted individual is not in a position to recognize the symptoms in order to seek specialized help and support – and neither are their loved ones. Therefore, correct information about their existence, their seriousness and the dangers they conceal is the first step to diagnosis and treatment.
But what are eating disorders?
Upon hearing this phrase, most people think of a condition when a person cannot eat – what in everyday talk we call “my stomach’s a knot”. This is partly true. Actually, the term eating disorders refers to a sum of pathological conditions, in which a person exhibits certain problems with food intake. The term does not only refer to the case of anorexia; in fact, the most common of eating disorders is polyphagia, the result of which is the increase of body weight and obesity.
There are many officially listed eating disorders, the majority of which have various factors as causes; among those are the modern way of life, as well as the quality and kind of food produced and consumed today.
What we ought to know, first of all, is that all these eating disorders (which this article and others to follow will analyze extensively) are not independent of our psychological state. In fact, the opposite is true. Whatever problem we experience with food intake has, essentially, psychogenic causes. The various sentimental problems we experience and our inability to handle them rationally are the reasons (among others) that often lead us to exhibit problems in our dietary behavior. Thus, our inability to suppress thoughts or actions that hurt us, lack of confidence, our internal need to be accepted or the fact that we have experienced rejection may practically lead us to excessive food intake (polyphagia) or to the opposite extreme – the refusal to eat food (anorexia).
The most common types of eating disorders listed today
This is a special category of eating disorder and, as mentioned above, the most common today. This disorder describes the cases of people who, under circumstances of emotional pressure and stress, devour great amounts of food in a small amount of time. This reaction can happen either as an isolated event or on a systematic basis; its most prominent characteristic is the fact that the person feels shame or guilt about the amount of food consumed; yet does not induce vomit.
In turn, gluttony is a condition in which the person exhibits recurrent and systematic incidents of polyphagia; these incidents are also accompanied by a sense of guilt but in no case by an effort to self-purge from excessive food intake.
Night eating syndrome
People suffering from this syndrome have the tendency to interrupt their night sleep and find comfort in excessive food intake without experiencing an actual sense of hunger. This is a syndrome provoked by situations of extreme anxiety and is characterized by decreased appetite in the morning.
This is a very serious eating disorder; it is potentially life threatening since it is often identified with anorexia nervosa. In this case, after an incident of polyphagia (always triggered by emotional causes), afflicted individuals punish themselves; they do this by subjecting themselves to either exhausting physical exercise or through the enforcement of extreme limitations to food intake or by inducing vomit. They may also use certain uncontrollable and irrational pharmaceutical means: for instance, they may use extensive enemas, drink diuretics intended for the treatment of high blood pressure, or take diet and anti-swelling pills. Bulimia nervosa is a syndrome that very often leads to anorexia nervosa, which results in these two disorders being identified as one, with two different symptoms.
Anorexia nervosa is a restricting type of eating disorder, in which a person extremely limits food intake for a long period of time; this may be followed by incidents of bulimia nervosa. Afflicted individuals are characterized by their denial to maintain a healthy normal weight, accompanied by a manic fear of gaining weight combined with a distorted self-image. Therefore, at a first stage, anorexic individuals tend to consider themselves overweight and are trapped in a permanent process of weight loss. They feel guilty when consuming food; as a result, after food intake, they self-punish through processes like vomit, intense physical exercise or medicine usage. At this initial stage, people still experience a sense of hunger but they starve themselves by consuming less than 600 calories per day; while phenomena of total atrophy have been observed. If this condition is prolonged, afflicted individuals are no longer able to eat and lose their ability to satisfy their hunger; the result being that they literally starve and their lives are in actual danger. As a mental disorder, anorexia nervosa holds the greatest mortality rate than any other. It is demonstrated mostly in pubescent and post-pubescent ages, with female population in the lead with crushing percentages.
Orthorexia nervosa is a non-officially listed kind of eating disorder, where the afflicted individual is manically occupied with the type and quality of food they consume. So, people suffering from orthorexia constantly seek healthy foods, which have been biologically certified, that have the ability to provide them with energy without increasing their weight. Actually, this is a “qualitative” eating disorder that has gained momentum merely in the last 15 years in Western countries; just when alternative dietary habits, such as vegetarianism or veganism, started becoming trendy and our vocabulary was invaded by terms like superfoods, organic farming, etc. By definition, this disorder seems to be a contradiction in terms that might make us wonder how it is possible for a (based on conviction) healthy diet to constitute a disorder, while scientists unanimously urge us to incorporate quality choices in our everyday diet to ensure our good health and longevity. And yet, orthorexia is an extreme expression of healthy diet, where afflicted individuals are possessed by an obsession with correct dieting; potentially, this disorder may even lead to death.
Atypical forms of eating disorders
In this category fall all those cases where a person may exhibit some of the previous disorders’ characteristics, without fulfilling the criteria for a certified diagnosis.
Predisposing factors for eating disorders
There are various factors that contribute to the emergence of an eating disorder sometime in life. In fact, our often vulnerable psychology, combined with these external factors or, quite often, with a certain existing predisposition, can disrupt a person’s correct dietary habits.
As mentioned above, one of the most important factors that can lead modern people to develop an eating disorder is our very civilization, either through the beauty and success standards projected by the mass media or through the parade of selfies and the “image” culture that dominates social media.
Yet, obviously, not everyone who watches too much TV or is very active on Facebook, twitter, Instagram or any other social media is afflicted by an eating disorder… Here, of grave importance is the personality factor. Statistics report that perfectionists (and, in extent, people who pursue perfection neurotically); over-achievers; very lonely people; and socially “insufficient” people are on the front line when it comes to exhibiting some sort of eating disorder at some point in their lives. Added to these high risk groups are people who have a deeply founded need to be accepted by their peers – a fact that very often derives from lack of acceptance during childhood or domineering parenting. Based on research, obsessive personalities also run a high risk of developing an eating disorder; these are the people who have a tendency toward asceticism, who appreciate purity. Finally, likewise predisposed are people who tend to avoid risks; people with low self-esteem and assertiveness; people who have difficulty in expressing sentiment (those whom we call “introverts”) or who externalize their emotions wrongly (in extent, the latter have a tendency to form “problematic relationships”); and people who tend to develop obsessions.
On the other hand, biological factors are obviously important in the occurrence of eating disorders. For example, problems in a person’s physical shaping during childhood and adolescence are indubitably involved in the dietary habits they later develop. A person’s way of life, lack of physical exercise, prolonged malnutrition or bad habits, disorders in certain hormonal levels, problems with the thyroid gland, diabetes, dietary allergies and much more are just some examples that define the person’s dietary choices and can certainly lead to the development of a disorder.
Finally, two very essential predisposing factors to eating disorders are family and bad and/or wrong information on health, eating and diet. It has been observed that, should a person’s family environment be “dietarily morbid”, then the person (even if they have a normal approach to food intake) tends to face problems some time in life; especially when having grown up in an environment where parents (the mother in particular) have unhealthy eating habits.
On the other hand, wrong information can prove fatal for someone in relation to the topic of this article. Bad food seminars; extreme dietary formulations; combined diets; the chemical diet of a friend when you eat only bananas and water; the diet of a neighbor when you eat nothing and lose weight; the diet for muscle toning recommended by an acquaintance who was told by someone at the gym and that, along with certain concoctions, will transform you into a bodybuilder; the diet you saw online that lacks the signature of a specialist but promises to turn you into a model; and many other similar examples have led a significant number of people (teenagers in particular) to metabolism disruptions, the development of eating disorders and, quite often, to the outbreak of certain diseases.
Difficulty in expressing emotions or their incorrect management may prove harmful to our health as a whole; in fact, according to the father of medicine, Hippocrates, “there are no illnesses – only ill people”. Modern therapeutics have come to recognize the importance of psychology on the outbreak of an illness and to its treatment; as a result, more and more scientists often admit that “the majority of illnesses have a psychological background”.
For our body weight to be normal, it should include a variety of numbers defined by specific data, such as height, body type, age. Correct diet is also determined by certain rules, which, as long as we follow, we can ensure our organism’s proper nourishment, our well being and our good health. Yet all this is theoretical; because, in action, where adults are concerned, it is a rare thing for our weight and diet to be independent of our emotional state. Furthermore, our diet is not dictated by a purely rationalistic approach as it happens in the case of infants; where the pediatrician designates for the mother the ideal range of weight according to age and she, in turn, takes care of the baby’s balanced diet.
As we grow older, our way of living, our emotions and psychological state significantly affect our relation with ourselves, our bodies and, in extent, our relation with food. A common characteristic shared by people who face problems with eating disorders is the fact that they have great difficulty in managing their stress and that, often, they do not recognize or cannot properly express their emotions. In fact, eating disorders have much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorders, as well as with phobic and addictive behaviors. Therefore, their management and treatment should be the combined result of medication (wherever it is needed), psychological and/or psychiatric support and specialized intervention by a nutritionist. The most up-to-date scientific data about the treatment of eating disorders will be provided in a separate upcoming article; along with a series of articles that will further analyze the specific characteristics of each modern eating disorders mentioned here.