Eating disorders (EDs) could be likened to the dark side of dieting. Affecting predominantly women (but also many men), an eating disorder is far more than just a food and weight obsession. There are three main disorders: Binge eating disorder (compulsive overeating), Anorexia Nervosa, and Bulimia Nervosa.
Eating Disorders have only been labeled as such over the last 30 years or so, but may have been around a lot longer. However incidences of eating disorders are on the rise, and affect both men & women predominantly in Western countries.
It is easy to draw statistical conclusions as to the direct causes of an eating disorder, but no person is alike and each case has its own root causes - although patterns do emerge after studying a number of cases.
Causes of Eating Disorders
Perhaps one of the biggest causal factors is modern society's obsession with physical image. Many women begin developing symptoms of an eating disorder on or around puberty - although it is disturbing to note that the age appears to be getting younger and younger (however puberty has also been tracking downward in age). According to ANAD* - 86% report onset of the illness by age 20, 43% between ages 16-20, and 33% between age 11-15.
There is immense pressure on young women to obtain and retain a particular body shape and size. One cannot hide from a media saturated with images of skinny women - despite this being completely unrepresentative of the general population. From Television, to magazine covers, to billboards, movies, and the Internet - both men and women are bombarded with the message that the skinnier the better.
The extreme of this is the modeling and fashion industry that continues to push the envelope in defining the "acceptable" woman. Many fashion models are dangerously underweight, and perpetuate a very unhealthy image. There is also a high incidence of eating disorder cases among dancers, models, athletes, and celebrities - often occurring due to the huge pressure to maintain a certain weight. However EDs are now (disturbingly) occurring right across all boundaries - race, social demographic, and background.
In the attempt to reach the "desirable weight" - many women and girls move from healthy weight loss techniques (healthy eating plans and appropriate aerobic exercise) into unhealthy weight loss, that becomes addictive and habit forming. Despite initially feeling "in control" of their weight, the disorder then takes over and leads into a downward spiral of losing control (addiction), and ultimately health dangers (and even death).
Body image distortion is just one primary factor, but each of the main eating disorders, often have their own causal patterns that are much more complex than simply "wanting to be thin".
An eating disorder is much more than a simple issue about food and weight. It is a symptom of deeper issues going on in the persons life. The eating disorder is a way of trying to gain control of these issues.
Many eating disorders are closely tied with clinical depression, and feelings of low self-esteem. There are also many factors in the persons background that can come together to contribute to the addiction.
*National Associate of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
Disordered Eating Patterns
Many of us may have disordered eating patterns, or may even go through phases where our eating patterns could almost be defined as an eating disorder. Starvation diets are one such example - they may achieve a quick and noticeable loss of weight, but they can end up slowing our metabolism, and setting us up for weight gain later on down the track. A starvation diet is not sustainable.
For many people food becomes more than simply a source for nutrition and energy, but becomes a difficult obsession, a source of comfort, a way of providing a feeling of "control". How many people eat when they feel sad? Or reach for the junk food as a "quick-fix" in much the same way as a drug?
Often obsessive dieting can begin to fall inside the boundaries of disordered eating. It is a difficult balance to attain, - to be concerned and watchful over what you eat, yet not become obsessed.
Take Care With Obsessive Dieting
If you are embarking on a diet plan you should consult your physician, and obtain as much information as you can. There are many healthy eating plans around, and the best way to lose weight is to do it slowly and consistently. Many eating disorder sufferers started dieting from a very young age, and often under pressure from parents (or other authority figures).
If you are a parent - encourage and assist your child into healthy eating, and adequate exercise. Be wary of constantly pressuring them to diet (or by setting that example yourself).
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