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Eating Disorders

What is an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are a class of mental illness, characterised by an abnormal perception of one's body shape and obsessive thoughts relating to food and body weight. This is commonly associated with depression and anxiety. These disorders can affect anyone, at any age, but are more common in young females during adolescence and early adulthood. Those involved in activities and sports that have an emphasis on appearance and bodyweight, such as modelling, dance, gymnastics and calisthenics, are more likely to develop an eating disorder. In many cases, sufferers do not realise they have developed a problem, and it may take a concerned family member or friend to start a conversation with a health professional, before treatment can be pursued.

Early warning signs of an eating disorder include constant and obsessive dieting, compulsive exercise regimes designed to burn calories and lose weight, anxiety and rigid or secretive behaviours around meals. Frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals (for self-induced vomiting) may also occur. 

Depression and/or low self esteem, and repetitive checking of weight may be evident. Physical symptoms of an eating disorder can include: dramatic weight loss (or gain), dizziness and fainting, tiredness and lethargy, teeth damage, bad breath and cold intolerance.

There are four main categories of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating and Other types of Feeding and Eating Disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a severe and chronic mental illness, which is classified by self-starvation and body weight that is around 15% less than the average for the person's age, sex and height. Also associated with the illness is compulsive exercise, a fear of becoming "fat", and a distorted view of one's body shape (see themselves as fat when they are actually thin). This is different to simple "anorexia" which means loss of appetite and can have a multitude of medical causes. Anorexia Nervosa, untreated, can become life-threatening, due to electrolyte imbalance, vitamin and nutrient deficiency and organ damage. It must be taken seriously.  Physical symptoms of anorexia may include: 

  • Disruption to hormones that regulate reproductive organs resulting in irregular or no menstruation and impaired fertility

  • Dangerously low blood pressure that can result in dizziness and fainting

  • Disruption to the balance of electrolytes which may cause fluid retention and confusion

  • Brittle bones (osteoporosis) with fractures from minimal trauma

In addition to being a physical disease, Anorexia Nervosa is classified as a serious mental illness. Research published through the National Eating Disorders Collaboration "shows that 1 in 5 individuals with Anorexia Nervosa who died prematurely had committed suicide". This figure is much higher than the suicide rates amongst suffers of other types of eating disorders. It is also a very difficult condition to treat, requiring highly specialised support and, often, in-patient care.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is differentfrom Anorexia Nervosa as it is characterised by a cycle of binge eating and purging (self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse) in order to control one's weight. Someone suffering from Bulimia will often feel a sense of guilt and shame following eating, and a sense of relief when purging. Unlike sufferers of Anorexia Nervosa who can be identified through changes in eating habits and a dramatic loss of weight over a short period of time, those suffering from Bulimia tend to go unnoticed for far longer. This is because purging is often done in secret, and sufferers maintain their weight within a reasonably normal range.

In addition to the physical symptoms listed above, those suffering from Bulimia can experience severe tooth decay, sore throat, stomach ulcers and ruptures of the oesophagus, due to constant vomiting.

Binge Eating

Binge Eating is the uncontrollable compulsion to eat, even if one is not hungry or feels full. It is often associated with depression, stress and anxiety, whereby food is used as a comfort. Those who suffer from binge eating will often feel upset or guilty after eating. Unlike those with Bulimia, binge eaters do not purge. As a result, the majority of binge eaters are overweight or obese. This can result in health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and respiratory and skin problems. 

How We Care

Early intervention and treatment of an eating disorder usually results in the best outcomes. The challenge is the extremely secretive nature of the illness and getting the sufferer to acknowledge that they have a problem.  Our team of male and female doctors are aware of the challenges associated with those suffering from an eating disorder, and recognise the stress it can place on family members and close friends. 

Our doctors can help identify the early warning signs of an eating disorder and develop treatment approaches that suit the individual. This involves the coordination of various health professionals including psychiatrists, counsellors and nutritionists with the aim of restoring the individual to good mental and physical health. 

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