Health & Fitness

How to identify and deal with eating disorders

Many people suffering from binge eating disorder have a likelihood of being obese and are at risk of developing other conditions such as heart disease. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Many people suffering from binge eating disorder have a likelihood of being obese and are at risk of developing other conditions such as heart disease. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Many people suffer eating disorders that are in most cases unknown to them. These may be characterised by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape.

The eating discord may include inadequate or excessive food intake which ultimately damages the individual’s well-being. The most common forms of eating disorders include Pica, Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

They affect both men and women from all cultural backgrounds so it should not come as a surprise when we relate to the symptoms or recognise them in our loved ones.


This is characterised by an appetite for and the consumption of non-nutritive substances such as paper, soil, metal, chalk, stones or even hair for a period spanning longer than a month. This is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder. It is predominant in children, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities such as autism. Mineral deficiencies such as iron, zinc and calcium are occasionally associated with pica.

It renders one susceptible to poisoning, e.g lead poisoning, infections and a much greater risk of gut obstruction because these substances are indigestible. In some instances, stomach walls are torn leading to internal bleeding.

Anorexia Nervosa

A person suffering from anorexia nervosa will characteristically have an obsessive fear of gaining weight leading to refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and has an unrealistic perception of body image. Many people with anorexia nervosa will sternly limit the quantity of food they consume because they view themselves as overweight, even when they are clearly underweight.

Because people with anorexia are so good at hiding it, the disease may become severe before anyone around them notices anything wrong.

If left untreated, anorexia can lead to complications such as malnutrition which can have damaging health effects such as brain damage, multi-organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties, and infertility. The risk of death is quite high in individuals with this disease. However, with treatment, most people with gain back the weight they lost and the physical problems they developed get better.

Bulimia Nervosa

This eating disorder is characterised by repeated binge eating followed by behaviour that compensates for the over-eating, such as forced purging, excessive exercise, or extreme use of laxatives or diuretics. Men and women who suffer from Bulimia may fear weight gain and feel unhappy with their body size and shape. Since the binge-eating and purging cycle is usually done in secret, it creates feelings of shame, guilt, and lack of control.

If left untreated, bulimia can result in long-term health problems such as severe dehydration, heart difficulties, gastrointestinal, dental, and kidney problems.

Binge Eating Disorder

The disorder is almost as common in men as it is in women with the average onset being 25 years. Individuals who suffer from BED frequently lose control over their eating. Though almost similar, the difference between bulimia nervosa and BED is that episodes of binge-eating are not followed by compensatory behaviour, such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise. For this reason, many people suffering from BED have a likelihood of being obese and are at risk of developing other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.

Men and women who struggle with this disorder may also experience intense feelings of guilt, distress, and embarrassment due to their binge-eating, influencing the progression of the disorder. It then becomes a vicious cycle, because the more distressed they feel about bingeing, the more they do it. Because binge eating leads to obesity, it can have serious health consequences if left untreated.

In the treatment and management of eating disorders, the first step towards recovery is repairing lost or gained weight and health, normalising food intake and behaviour, and managing nutrient deficiencies.

The longer an eating disorder persists, the harder it is to get rid of it — which is why early diagnosis and prompt action is associated with a better prognosis. With anorexia, not eating dulls the senses. With bulimia, not eating leads to bingeing and then purging to relieve the distress — followed by more restriction of food.

With BED, not eating leads to cravings followed by uncontrollable over eating. Some people are particularly vulnerable to these self-perpetuating cycles. It is therefore vital to seek professional help at the earliest possible time.

Nutritional needs of a recovering eating disorder patient are different from other people and the needs continue to vary in the various stages of recovery. In general, patients recovering from eating disorders will initially have distorted metabolisms that will stabilise in the course of recovery.
It is crucial that you get the help of an experienced dietician.