Eating disorders, while often misunderstood, are very real and complex illnesses that can have serious consequences for a person’s health and overall well-being. February 21 – 27, 2016, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and a perfect time to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of an eating disorder, and what to do if you suspect someone you love is suffering.
“There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to eating disorders,” said Wendy Askew, M.D., and obstetrician-gynecologist at the Institute for Women’s Health, San Antonio. “Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding these disorders makes broaching the topic difficult for many people.”
Eating disorders can be triggered by a combination of factors, including behavioral, emotional, interpersonal and social. A person suffering from an eating disorder typically becomes preoccupied with control of food, and may exhibit mood swings and irritability. And while some eating disorders present in ways that are fairly obvious, others may not.
“Anorexia nervosa typically presents in a dramatic weight loss or a fixation on calorie counting and dieting,” Dr. Askew said. “Bulimia may not result in weight loss at all, but may manifest in physical signs including swelling of the cheeks, teeth that are more prone to cavities or calluses on the back of their hands or knuckles, which is indicative of self-induced vomiting.”
Binge eating disorder is another type of common eating disorder. A binge eater may eat much more food than normal in one sitting, but unlike bulimia, will not purge the calories. If you suspect someone you love may be a binge eater, try to take notice of wrappers or containers that indicate the consumption of large amounts of food over a short timeframe.
Other symptoms of eating disorders which may not be obvious include:
- Weight fluctuations (both gain and loss)
- Menstrual irregularities including a missed or stopped period
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or fainting
- Feeling cold all the time or growing a very fine layer of hair on the arms and legs
- Low potassium levels
- A sore throat or the inflammation of the esophagus; spitting up blood
Meal times traditionally are a source of great stress and anxiety for someone with an eating disorder. Many people fear eating in front of others and may avoid it all together. They may practice unusual food rituals like chewing an unusually large number of times, cutting their food into very small pieces or eating very slowly. And most people suffering from an eating disorder eventually become preoccupied with behaviors that allow them to exhibit an extreme form of control over their consumption or regurgitation of food.
“It’s important to remember that eating disorders don’t discriminate,” Dr. Askew said. “People of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds suffer from these disorders, and addressing them with kindness and compassion is key to getting them on the path to health.”
Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. If you have a loved one exhibiting the signs of an eating disorder, talk to your physician about the best treatment plan for them. It may require a team approach with a registered dietitian and a mental health professional and, most importantly, the support of the people who care about them.
Wendy Askew, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist with the Institute for Women’s Health, San Antonio. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Askew, please call 210.494.2000.