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Eating Disorders: Signs, Symptoms, and What to Do

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Know a picky eater? It’s the person in your life who sticks to eating only a few staple items at mealtime and doesn’t stray too far from what he or she is used to. While quirky and a bit difficult to take out to dinner, your pal’s behavior probably has more to do with personal preference than anything else. But if that someone begins to show an intense fear of gaining weight, you might be dealing with a more dangerous problem: an eating disorder—the mental health issue affecting 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States.

Although the stigmas associated with eating disorders have changed for the better since public awareness campaigns began in the 1980s, anorexia still has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. And since eating disorders affect so many, educating ourselves about the signs, symptoms, and what we can do to support our loved ones who face this difficult battle could save a life—or at least make one better.

Seeing the Signs

Eating disorders are tricky to diagnose and treat because they are not as obvious as diseases like cancer or diabetes. But there are some recognizable signs that offer clues.

Common emotional or behavioral signs of these eating disorders may include:

  • Overly concerned with weight loss, dieting, and controlling food,
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or whole categories of foods
  • Discomfort eating in front of others
  • An overly concerned attitude towards outward appearance
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Self-esteem issues and frequent talk of weight are other outward signs of emotional distress.

Physical symptoms include:

  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Gastro-intestinal complaints
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Sleep problems
  • Cuts or callouses on knuckles from purging
  • Dental problems or tooth discoloration
  • Dry skin or brittle hair and nails
  • Poor wound healing and impaired immune functioning

Knowing the types of eating disorders

There are a variety of eating disorders, and a few you’ve probably never heard about. Anorexia—an intense fear about gaining weight—and bulimia—binging and purging food—are the most common. But there’s also pica—eating non-food items—and orthorexia—an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.

Providing support

No matter which disorder you’re dealing with, understanding how to support your friend or loved one is the key to helping.

If someone in your family has received a recent diagnosis, ask what you can do and then listen to the answer. A few ideas include deciding if you exhibit any enabling behaviors—like assuming your family member isn’t hungry at mealtime. It might also help to set routines for meals and, if possible, stay in touch with your family member’s doctor and therapist.

If you suspect someone you care about has an undiagnosed eating disorder, a first step is to have an honest conversation with him or her. It’s OK to acknowledge that your talk is probably going to be a difficult one because you’ve got to balance sensitivity with the need to communicate clearly. You can try using  “I” statements, explaining what you’ve observed and the reasons you’re concerned. Be prepared for negative reactions and to encourage your friend to seek help. And no matter what, it’s also healthy to acknowledge that eating disorders are tricky to treat and scary for everyone.

Since body image is a significant part of our culture, it’s no wonder so many children, teens, and adults are affected, especially females. But by creating an honest, caring, and supportive dialogue about both eating disorders and their root causes, we can find ways to lessen their negative effects on all of us.

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