Losing a few unwanted pounds can improve your self-esteem and your ability to fit into that new pair of jeans, but weight loss can become a serious health concern if you take it too far.
Eating disorders affect up to 24 million people in the United States, the majority of them female. When you have an eating disorder, it’s difficult to think of anything else but food, exercise, and weight loss. You may continue to lose weight after you reach your goal weight, even if your family and friends express concerns about how much weight you’ve lost. Food becomes more than just fuel. Controlling your food intake gives you a sense of containment when you feel overwhelmed or emotional.
Doctors recognize three conditions as eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating.
Anorexia nervosa is a condition characterized by extreme weight loss due to lack of food. If you have this condition, you may eat very little or skip meals entirely. Despite eating very little, you may still feel that you weigh too much and must compensate by exercising obsessively. If you’re a woman, you might stop having periods due to loss of body fat.
Irritability can be a problem and you may find that you no longer feel emotion properly and don’t want to socialize with friends and family. Physical symptoms including trouble sleeping, pain in the abdomen, dry skin, feeling cold, and constipation can make you uncomfortable. As your weight drops lower, you may experience several very serious symptoms including dehydration, an irregular heartbeat, and low blood pressure.
Eating isn’t a problem if you have bulimia. In fact, you may eat so much that your stomach may begin to hurt. Concerns about eating too many calories lead to the next step of bulimia – forced vomiting, or purging, after meals. Some people skip the purging step and remove unwanted calories by taking laxatives. Either way, if you have bulimia, a visit to the restroom after eating becomes a normal part of every meal. Bulimia increases your risk of several health problems including damage to your teeth and gums from the acid in vomit, dehydration, abnormal bowel functions, irregular heartbeat, and menstrual problems.
Eating too much food can be dangerous. If you have a binge-eating disorder, you eat large amounts of food even after you’re no longer hungry. Guilty feelings about binging can lead you to eat even more food. Binge-eaters aren’t obsessed with calories and exercise and don’t purge after eating. In some cases, binge-eaters become overweight or obese. In other cases, they develop a system to avoid gaining weight by modifying other parts of their eating habits.
If you are a binge-eater, you may prefer to eat alone so that others don’t know that you binge. In addition to eating large amounts of food during a binge, you also may eat faster than normal. Your problem can lead to pain in the stomach after binging and feelings of depression.
Eating disorders can lead to serious health problems and even death in extreme cases. Depriving your body of the food it needs while putting it under extreme stress can eventually damage your heart, kidneys, and other organs. Without enough calcium in your body, you may experience bone loss. If you are a teenager when you develop anorexia nervosa or bulimia, you’re growth may be stunted. Digestive problems are a concern, as are dangerously high or low blood pressure. You may develop cavities from vomiting and sores in your throat or mouth.
If binge-eating leads to an increase in weight, you increase the stress on your heart and negatively affect blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Obesity is also a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, infertility, menstrual problems, and several types of cancer.
Whether you have anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or are a binge-eater, you may be more likely to be depressed and consider suicide.
Psychotherapy is an important part of the treatment plan if you have an eating disorder. During psychotherapy, you speak to a mental health professional who helps you find healthier ways to cope with stress and emotions and teaches you how to develop healthy eating habits and change negative thoughts about eating. Family therapy may be recommended if you are a minor.
A dietician can help you develop a plan to safely gain weight or safely lose weight while considering your emotional needs. If weight loss is severe, your doctor may recommend that you spend time in the hospital or at a facility that offers an eating disorders program. Anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication may help improve depression or anxiety related to your food issues as well.
The Bottom Line
Although recovering from an eating disorder takes time, you can enjoy a normal, healthy life again through the help of therapy sessions, nutritional guidance, and support from your family and friends.
If you think you may have a problem and need help, talk to someone you trust or try the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.