Eating Disorders Explained Simply

Blog, Written by Sophie Corbett

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that affect increasingly more people. Yet they remain widely misunderstood by the public.

 

During my training to be a dietitian, in a lecture on Eating Disorders, one of my peers asked “I don’t get it, why don’t they just eat?” In this blog, we will try and answer this. Explaining eating disorders simply to help you understand: what they are, their signs and symptoms, how they work in the brain, diagnostic criteria, risk factors, treatment options, and prevention methods.

Understanding these aspects can hopefully help you or someone you know on the journey to recovery.

 

What are Eating Disorders?

 

Eating disorders are serious conditions characterised by persistent eating behaviours that negatively impact your health, emotions, and ability to function in important areas of life. They encompass various forms, with the main recognised ones being: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and ARFID. Eating disorders are not just about food; they often involve deeper issues related to control, stress, and self-worth.

 

Signs and Symptoms

 

Recognising the signs and symptoms of eating disorders is crucial for early intervention and recovery. These can be physical, behavioural, and emotional.

 

Here are some common symptoms:

 

Physical Symptoms:

 

  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Irregular or absent menstrual cycles
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Hair loss and dry skin

 

Behavioural Symptoms:

 

  • Skipping meals or eating in secret
  • Excessive exercise
  • Avoiding social situations involving food
  • Ritualistic eating habits

 

Emotional Symptoms:

 

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and depression

 

How Eating Disorders Work in the Brain: Habitual Behaviour

 

Eating disorders are not merely about willpower or choosing not to eat. They involve complex interactions in the brain. Habitual behaviours form through repetitive actions that become automatic over time. In the case of eating disorders, certain behaviours around food and eating can become deeply ingrained. Some people are genetically predisposed to developing these problems and a trigger such as a traumatic event, illness or going through puberty causes them to develop the disorder.

 

The brain’s reward system also plays a role. For instance, the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical, can reinforce behaviours like binge eating. And a fear response can reinforce the avoidance of food in Anorexia and ARFID. Over time, these behaviours can become hardwired, where the ‘autopilot’ behaviour is the maladaptive one. Therefore making it difficult to break the cycle without professional help.

 

Diagnostic Criteria

 

To diagnose an eating disorder, health professionals use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). These guidelines ensure that the diagnosis is accurate and based on specific symptoms and behaviours.

 

Some people may be diagnosed with one Eating Disorder which may later develop into a different one.

 

Who Can Diagnose?

 

Typically, diagnoses are made by psychiatrists or psychologists. Involving a specialist dietitian is also crucial for a comprehensive assessment, as they can evaluate the nutritional aspects and work on a suitable recovery plan. However, dietitians working on their own cannot provide a diagnosis, but they can as part of a specialist team.

 

Risk Factors for Developing Eating Disorders

 

Several factors can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder:

 

Biological Factors:

 

  • Genetic predisposition (link to EDGI)
  • Neurodiversity, such as ADHD (link to ADHD blog)

 

Psychological Factors:

 

  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Poor body image
  • Neurodiversity

 

Social and Cultural Influences:

 

 

Treatment:

 

Effective treatment of eating disorders often requires a multidisciplinary approach. This includes therapy, medical care, and nutritional guidance from a specialist dietitian.

 

Here are some key components of treatment:

 

Therapy:

 

The most common ones being- 

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)

Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT)

Group therapy

Family-based therapy

 

Medical Care:

 

Regular health check-ups to monitor weight, bloods and other physical signs. 

Medication to manage coexisting anxiety or depression.

 

Nutritional Guidance:

 

An eating disorder dietitian plays a pivotal role in recovery. They help develop a balanced diet plan, address nutritional deficiencies, and work on rebuilding a healthy relationship with food. Their expertise is essential for long-term recovery and preventing relapse.

 

Support Networks:

 

Building a supportive network and environment supportive to change is vital. This can include family, friends, support groups, and online communities dedicated to eating disorder recovery. Also ensuring your work or study environment supports your recovery.

 

Prevention

 

Preventing eating disorders involves developing a healthy relationship with food and body image from a young age. Not all of the presdiposing factors we considered above are modifiable. Despite this, creating an environment that supports the mental health of our society is incredibly important. As we learned through through the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent rise in rates of Eating Disorders.

 

Here are some strategies

Promoting Healthy Eating Habits through:

  • Encouraging balanced meals and snacks
  • Avoid labelling foods as “good” or “bad”
  • Avoiding diets in general
  • Encouraging a healthy relationship with food

 

Encourage Positive Body Image:

  • Recognise and celebrate the natural diversity in body shapes and size
  • Focus on body functionality rather than appearance
  • Understand how the world is built to encourage a negative relationship with our bodies

 

Educate About Media Literacy:

  • Teach critical thinking about media messages
  • Discuss the unrealistic standards often portrayed in social media and advertising
  • Encourage healthy limits around screen time

 

Support Mental Health:

  • Provide resources for managing stress and emotions
  • Encourage seeking help for mental health issues like anxiety and depression

 

Conclusion

 

Understanding eating disorders can help us better support ourselves and those around us. These complex conditions involve more than just food; they are mental health conditions and the behaviour around food is a symptom of the disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional or an eating disorder dietitian. Recovery is possible, and it starts with understanding and support.

By gaining knowledge and promoting awareness, we can create a compassionate environment where those affected by eating disorders can find the help and healing they need.

 

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We are here to help

 

If you feel that this topic personally resonates with you, and you need some support in this area then we are here to help. We are a team of specialist dietitians in mental health and eating disorders. We would love to support you to be your best and healthiest version, and to meet your personal goals. Send us a message here. Or find out more about us here

 

Blog written by Sophie

 

Sophie is a Specialist Eating Disorder Dietitian passionate about delivering great quality care and advocating for her clients. She is naturally curious and driven for continued learning both within the profession and outside of it. Sophie founded Mental Health Dietitians in 2024 to be able to work in a way that is value-aligned and makes a difference to the individuals in her care, as well as the wider profession. She currently supports international clients 1-1 in her online clinic. 

 

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