When Eating and Weight are Concerns: A Glimpse at Eating Disorders

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Do you or someone you know think about food or body size in a way that prevents you from enjoying life? Thoughts and behaviours like this can lead to eating disorders. Learn more about the different types of these conditions and where to seek help.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are conditions where individuals are obsessed with food, eating and their body size. This obsession takes over their everyday behaviours and daily thoughts. Individuals with eating disorders use unhealthy behaviours to try to gain control over their lives. Having an eating disorder and being on a diet are not the same thing – but frequent dieting can be the first step in developing an eating disorder.  

The types of eating disorders we usually hear about include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa 

Someone with anorexia nervosa uses unhealthy practices (for example, starvation) to restrict their food intake. This condition commonly begins around puberty. Individuals with anorexia nervosa believe that by controlling their food intake they will be able to control whatever else is going on in their lives.

Some warning signs include:

  • An obsession with being thin and an extreme fear of gaining weight or being fat. This feeling may exist even though the person may be very thin.
  • Strict control of food and weight. An individual may be greatly reducing the amount of food they are eating and often deny that they are hungry.
  • Losing a lot of weight without any logical reason, such as an illness.
  • Signs of starvation such as loss of hair; dry, pasty skin; lack of menstrual periods; yellowing palms or soles of feet.

A person with anorexia nervosa may have any one or a combination of these signs. They may also have some of the signs of bulimia nervosa.  Anorexia nervosa can be a serious and life threatening condition. It is important to seek professional help.

For more information: National Eating Disorder Information Centre

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is when a person goes through cycles of bingeing and purging. First, bingeing happens, which is when a person eats a large amount in an uncontrolled way and in a short time period. After bingeing, some form of purging happens (for example, vomiting or taking laxatives) to get rid of the food they have eaten.

Some early warning signs include:

  • Feeling out of control when eating.
  • Unhealthy behaviours used to get rid of food from the body. These include: vomiting, using laxatives, diet pills or diuretics, excessive exercise, and skipping meals.
  • Extreme concern with weight and dieting. Weight may also go up and down a lot. 

Other warning signs include:

  • Frequent vomiting may cause swelling of the cheeks or jaw area, hard and thick areas on the back of their hands, and/or discoloured teeth.  
  • Becoming distant from friends and family because the condition is controlling their life. This frequently happens with other eating disorders as well.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (also known as compulsive eating) is common in people who are overweight or obese. Binge eating is different from bulimia because someone with binge eating disorder will not use purging behaviours (like vomiting or laxatives) to get rid of the food. People with binge eating disorder usually overeat to numb their feelings and comfort themselves emotionally.

Some warning signs include:

  • No control around food and eating large amounts in one sitting.
  • Eating quickly and in secret.
  • Being on a diet or restricting food intake to the point that the hunger causes the individual to overeat.
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating.
  • Being ashamed and embarrassed about eating habits.

Seeking help for those with an eating disorder

People do recover from eating disorders but professional help is usually required.  It is important to seek help as soon as possible because the longer someone suffers from an eating disorder, the more difficult it can be to treat.  Eating disorders should be diagnosed by a physician. Getting help for an eating disorder may include some or all of the following care:

  • Working with a therapist to discover the causes of the eating disorder and finding solutions.
  • Working with a Registered Dietitian on healthy eating strategies and how to manage a healthy weight.
  • Taking medications that help one think and feel better (for example, anti-depressants).

Depending on the situation, some individuals may need to go into a hospital or treatment centre. Support groups and services can also be a resource for friends and families of individuals with an eating disorder.

How to help if you suspect someone has an eating disorder?

It is not always easy to tell if someone has an eating disorder. Individuals with eating disorders try very hard to keep their behaviours a secret. If you think you know someone with an eating disorder, you can help by:

  • Being patient.  The decision to get help is up to the individual and it can often take a long time for a person with an eating disorder to accept that they need help. Offer your support and encouragement. Recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time with lots of ups and downs and also requires patience and care.
  • Offering support as they work towards getting help and while they are in treatment.
  • Being non-judgmental. Support even small changes and recognize that your loved one is doing the best they can while they try to regain their health.

The bottom line

Eating disorders can cause physical and mental damage, not just to the individual but to their loved ones as well. Seeking professional help is very important and can sometimes be life saving. While people with eating disorders try to hide the problem, there are warning signs you can see.  Talk to your friend or family member if you’re worried. It may take a long time for the individual to seek professional help, but you can make a difference by offering your support and encouraging them while they try to get healthy again.

Please connect with these organizations for more support:

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre

Canadian Mental Health Association

Hopewell Eating Disorders Support Centre


Last Update – November 7, 2018

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