Although people suffering from eating disorders can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms, most have the following overarching symptoms in common:
An unhealthy relationship with food
A person's relationship with food is unhealthy when eating has become a source of preoccupation, guilt, anxiety, shame, or fear. This dysfunctional relationship may manifest itself with symptoms that include:
- Establishment of rigid rules centered on food. These may include categorizing foods as "good" and "bad," deeming only specific times of day as acceptable for eating, restricting the amount of food it is permissible to eat, eating foods in a particular order, developing elaborate food rituals that interfere with eating, and refusing to eat certain foods or categories of foods.
- Guilty or shameful feelings about eating
- Binge eating. Characterized by eating an excessive amount of food at a faster-than-normal pace, binge eating is often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and a loss of control over eating.
- Obsession with weight, fat and caloric intake, and dieting
An unhealthy relationship with one's body
An individual's relationship with his or body is considered unhealthy when one or more of the following symptoms are present:
- Belief that body weight, shape, and appearance are the key measures of self-worth
- Difficulty interpreting the body's messages, including those of hunger, fullness, and emotional state
- Difficulty appropriately responding to the body’s messages of hunger, fullness, and emotional drive
- A distorted view of the body
- Extreme dissatisfaction and preoccupation with physical appearance, sometimes to the extent of interfering with activities and relationships
Unhealthy ways of regulating weight
Because people with eating disorders often feel very uncomfortable with the act of consuming food, they may engage in potentially dangerous behaviors in an effort to "get rid of" the calories they consume—and thereby diminish feelings of discomfort, guilt, and shame. These unhealthy behaviors can include:
- Excessive, inflexible exercise routines
- Abuse of laxatives or diuretics
- Self-induced vomiting
- Abuse of diet pills
In addition, people suffering from eating disorders may:
- Withdraw from friends, family members, and previously enjoyed activities
- Be evasive or dishonest about issues related to food, eating, or weight regulation
- Spend an excessive amount of time alone or looking in the mirror
- Negatively compare their bodies with those of other people on a regular basis
- Appear anxious, uncomfortable, or antisocial to others
The factors that lead to the development of an eating disorder often differ from the factors that make these illnesses challenging to treat. For example, the symptoms of an eating disorder may, over time, help an individual cope with the unique problems in his or her life.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa, for instance, often describe feeling numb or "like a robot" during the worst phase of their starvation—and for some, this numbness seems to be an escape from overwhelming life circumstances (although at great cost).
Some individuals who binge eat say that during a bingeing episode, they focus only on the food and forget about their problems. For these individuals, binge eating seems to provide a temporary escape from life's troubles.
The development and maintenance of disordered eating is complex and non-deliberate, and just as it is not accurate to say that people intend to develop diabetes, it is not accurate to say that individuals consciously develop eating disorders to cope with their problems. Whatever their origin, these symptoms can reach extremes that interfere with sufferers' lives and cause worry to themselves and their loved ones.
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
In addition to exhibiting the hallmark symptoms common to all eating disorders, people with anorexia nervosa also may:
- Appear dangerously thin
- Experience severe fatigue, irritability, constipation, or hair loss
- Suffer from dental problems caused by an extremely restricted diet
- Feel cold easily
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Grow fine hair (lanugo) all over the body
Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa
In addition to displaying symptoms common to all eating disorders, individuals with bulimia may exhibit signs that include:
- Swelling of the face or neck, blisters or calluses on the backs of the hands, and discoloration and decay of the teeth—all brought on by frequent self-induced vomiting
- Visits to the restroom immediately after eating and evidence of vomiting
- Evidence of binging and purging behaviors may also be present, such as wrappers from laxatives or diuretics, signs of food hoarding, or large amounts of food consumption.
It is important to realize that the onset of dangerous medical complications is not easy to predict. People can experience a breakdown in bodily functions after suffering from weight-loss-related symptoms for only a short period of time, highlighting the severity of bulimia nervosa.
This unpredictability, combined with tendency toward dehydration and lower levels of physical reserves (fat stores), makes these behaviors particularly dangerous for children and young adolescents. These facts highlight the danger of purgative behaviors—and underscore the message that they are not safe alternative weight-loss strategies.
Last reviewed on 1/28/10
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