Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Lesser known conditions that are ‘just as serious’ as anorexia and bulimia

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Independent 23rd Feb 2016: Kashmira Gander

 

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are dealing with eating disorders, and attempting to cope with skewed attitudes towards food and obsessive behaviours. This article brings into focus several other types of eating disorders which are equally as serious

Anorexia nervosa, where a person restricts their food and exercises excessively, and bulimia, where a food is binged on and purged, are among the most commonly known disorders. However many people display symptoms present in more than one disorder, Mary George, a spokeswoman for eating disorder charity Beat told The Independent.

She stressed that such conditions can be “just as serious” and can impact people’s lives, as well as those of their families, carers and communities.

She added that a report published by Beat in 2015 found that nearly 50 per cent of those affected have binge eating disorder.

Ms George highlighted that those who seek help early have a 33 per cent relapse rate compared with 63 per cent who sought help later.

“A change in behaviour, withdrawing from social situations, avoiding mealtimes are all possible signs of the illnesses,” she said, urging anyone concerned that they have an eating disorder to seek help as soon as possible from their GP. Further information can be found on the Beat website.

Nia Charpentier from Rethink Mental Illness said: “Eating disorders are complex and there are many different kinds, but what they all have in common is an unhealthy relationship with food and weight. It’s important to remember that anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, cultural or racial background.”

To mark Eating Disorder Awareness week, here are some lesser known eating disorders and conditions linked to obsession and body image.

Binge eating disorder

This condition is characterised by eating a large quantity of food over a short period of time on a regular basis.

Those dealing with binge-eating disorder are known to buy foods especially for bingeing episodes, according to the NHS.

In rare cases, those with the condition report losing control over what they eat and experiencing a state of confusion where they do not remember what they consumed.

Feelings of guilt associated with over-eating and gorging in private to avoid embarrassment are also apparent.

Such behaviour interferes with the body’s blood sugar regulation, leading to cravings.

Muscle dysmorphic disorder

The form of body dysmophic disorder linked to anxiety is also known as “megarexia” or “bigorexia”.

Mainly affecting men, it involves a person becoming fixated with becoming muscular, sculpting a lean physique, and striving for a particular shape.

In a reverse of the symptoms of anorexia, those with the condition believe their bodies are small despite being large and muscular.

Those with the condition spend an excessive amount of time weightlifting with the aim of building muscle, even when injured, and are overly pre-occupied with working out.

They are also obsessed by food, and become fixated with special diets and supplements.

Compulsively comparing physique with others and mood swings are also signs, according to the Body Dysmorphia Disorder Foundation.

Orthorexia

Not a medically recognised disorder, orthorexia has been gaining traction as “clean eating” and attending the gym have become more fashionable.  Coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, the term describes an obsession with healthy eating and “disease disguised as virute”. Ms George of Beat told The Independent last year that such actions resemble obessive compulsive disorder, such as being fixated on eating “pure” foods, and avoiding contamination with “impure” foods. The heightened awareness of such behaviours are linked to the “huge focus on healthy diet and lifestyle,” said Ms George.

Pica

Eating items that aren’t food and have no nutritional value for at least a month is the main sign that a person has pica.

Sometimes triggered by a lack of nutrients, according to the US National Library of Medicine, pica sufferers have been known to eat animal faeces, glass, clay, dirt, hairballs, ice, paint and sand.

The condition can be particularly dangerous when the fixation involves sharp objects or lead paint.

“Most people will be familiar with Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, but there are many others. For example Orthorexia, which is a fixation on eating food that you feel is healthy and pure. It may begin as a healthy diet but becomes rigorous and obsessive. Another example is Pica, which is when you eat things you shouldn’t, like chalk, stones or cigarette butts. The symptoms of these two examples differ greatly, but they both come back to the unhealthy relationship with food, and can have serious, even fatal, consequences on your health,” said Ms Charpentier.

Emotional overeating

Responding to negative emotions by consuming large amounts of food regardless of whether a person is hungry is what sets emotional eating apart from other disorders.

People with the condition use the behaviour as a coping mechanism, but are then plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. Foods high in fat and sugar are often sought, and overtime, the condition can lead to weight gain.

While physical hunger comes on gradually, emotional hunger hits suddenly and needs to be satisfied immediately, according the Beat. Eating until a person is full does not stop their urge to continue.

Can obesity be viewed as an eating disorder in the same way as anorexia?

Obesity is an eating disorder just like anorexia – and it’s time we started treating it that way.

In an article published in the Independent 23rd Feb 2016 Natasha Devon argues that obesity is just as much an eating disorder as anorexia. She raises a very important case on how society and particularly the media discriminates between how we fat people and thin people are perceived.

After I was diagnosed with anorexia-not-severe-enough-to-be-sectioned and put on a waiting list for ‘talking therapy’ by my GP, there followed a period of compulsive eating. What I found in my binges was another way to express my discontent

Sometime around Christmas 2013, I found myself on ITV This Morning’s sofa discussing the case of a 5-year-old girl who had been taken away from her parents after reaching ten stone.

As is their wont, This Morning had paired me with an ‘opponent’, a health journalist called Danni Levy, who is now also a reality TV personality.

Danni maintained that allowing your child to become obese was ‘child abuse of the worst kind’ and she supported the decision for the anonymous girl to be taken from her family. I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud) whether Dani, the tabloids (who had without exception gleefully jumped on the story, digitally dismembering the child’s body and pasting chunks of her belly flesh across their front pages) and the public’s attitude would have been the same had this child had anorexia.

It’s a question I also posed during a radio debate with Nick Ferarri of LBC, when he asked why he should feel sorry for a Scottish teen who was too large to leave her bedroom (while he made ‘mmm mmm mmm yummy’ noises, for reasons best known to himself).

I asked whether his reaction would be more compassionate if the teen was starving, instead of bingeing, behind the walls of her house. His response was a gratifying nanosecond of dead air.

In both instances the social media reaction was swift. I was called a ‘daft bint’, a ‘silly cow’ who didn’t understand that anorexia was a ‘serious mental illness’ whereas obesity was simply about greed (and possibly sugar addiction).

Now, let me be clear. I’m not talking about common-or-garden slight overweightness, which in all probabilityis the result of greed or sugar addiction of the type most of us are guilty. But if one eats oneself into a state where it is impossible to move, that must, in my opinion, suggest a psychological element. It is not the sign of a mentally well person to abuse one’s body with such vicious disregard.

I speak from personal experience. In my early teens, long before the eight years I languished under the suffocating presence of bulimia nervosa, I briefly ‘flirted’ with anorexia. I starved myself for less than a year, yet it was still enough to stunt my growth (I’m 5 foot 11 but my doctor reckons I should be 6 foot 2) and to leave me undernourished.

My body reacted as bodies are wont and it cried out for nutrients in whatever form it could imbibe them.

Our bodies don’t understand our long-term goals. They aren’t designed to withstand whatever random regimes our minds dream up in the hope of fitting into our bikini for summer. They can only exist in and respond to two states – getting enough food, or not. The latter results in an urge to ‘binge’ (which is why diets are so often fail).

And so after I was diagnosed with anorexia-not-severe-enough-to-be-sectioned and put on a waiting list for ‘talking therapy’ by my GP, there followed a period of compulsive eating. What I found in my binges was another way to express my discontent.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, born out of one or a range of complex emotions – low self-worth, a response to trauma, bullying or abuse, a desire for control, to name but a few. The food and exercise element is a symptom, an expression of whatever is happening in the mind. For me, overeating came from the same emotional and mental space as starvation and continued long after I had compensated for the calorie ‘deficit’ caused by anorexia. Which is why I’m reluctant to dismiss extreme obesity as simply a case of physical greed.

B-eat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, agree with me and last year classified ‘binge eating disorder’ within its official spectrum of definitions.

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week here in the UK and I’d like to use it as an opportunity for us to put aside our prejudices, and try to summon some of the sympathy we feel when we see a severely underweight person when dealing with those who fall at the other side of the spectrum.

The prevailing press rhetoric might encourage us to sneer at the overweight and the ‘strain’ they place on our NHS, but until we acknowledge the psychological elements of overeating we’ll be no closer to solving the obesity crisis (or, as I call it ‘the crisis of bad lifestyle’, since some obese people are perfectly healthy).

Put simply, it’s time we changed our attitudes.