Eating disorders are characterized by persistent, altered eating behaviours that negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health. They can significantly impact your body’s ability to get appropriate nutrition and lead to complications or other diseases. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
Eating disorders often develop in the teen and young adult years, although they can develop at other ages. With treatment, you can return to healthier eating habits and sometimes reverse serious complications caused by the eating disorder.
RED FLAGS THAT MAY INDICATE AN EATING DISORDER
If you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, or if you suspect a loved one is, look out for the following signs:
- Skipping meals or making excuses for not eating
- Adopting an overly restrictive vegetarian diet
- Excessive focus on healthy eating
- Persistent worry or complaining about being fat and talk of losing weight
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
- Repeatedly eating large amounts of sweets or high-fat foods
- Making own meals rather than eating what the family eats
- Withdrawing from normal social activities
- Use of dietary supplements, laxatives or herbal products for weight loss
- Excessive exercise
- Calluses on the knuckles from inducing vomiting
- Problems with loss of tooth enamel (may be a sign of repeated vomiting)
- Absence during meals (e.g. to use the washroom)
- Eating much more food in a meal or snack than normal
- Expressing depression, shame or guilt about eating habits
- Eating in secret
WHAT YOU CAN DO (the last 3 tips are more for parents)
- Consult a doctor or psychologist. Discuss your concerns with a trusted practitioner. Often times, a team of healthcare practitioners (a psychologist, family doctor or paediatrician, dentist, dietitian/ ND, etc.) is needed for support.
- Check for nutritional deficiencies. Testing for nutrient deficiencies is often helpful to prevent or correct certain conditions caused by the eating disorder. For example, Dr. Yik finds that many patients with eating disorders have a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is an important nutrient not only for calcium absorption and healthy bones but also for mental and emotional health. If you are deficient, supplementation can help prevent or correct bone loss, osteoporosis and depression. Vitamin B12 deficiency is another common finding among patients with eating disorders, possibly because this vitamin is only found in foods of animal origin. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a loss of appetite, anxiety, depression and painful paresthesia (a burning or prickling sensation usually felt in the hands/feet but can be in any other part of the body). Dr. Yik also often tests for zinc, selenium and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and chloride.
- Avoid dieting around your child. Family dining habits may influence the relationships children develop with food. Eating meals together gives you an opportunity to teach your child to eat a balanced, healthful diet in reasonable portions.
- Talk to your child. Correct any misperceptions that may be found on the internet or social media. Keep the communication lines open and talk to your child about the risks of unhealthy eating choices.
- Reinforce a healthy body image in your child. Talk to your child about self-image and reassure them that body shapes can vary. Avoid criticizing your own body in front of your child. Messages of acceptance and respect can help build healthy self-esteem and resilience.
If you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, be patient and let them know that you are there to support them. Remember to give them space to talk about how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them without judgment.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, know that you are not alone. Reach out to someone you trust who can help you on the road to recovery.