Eating disorders vary and can affect anyone
Eating disorders are an equal opportunity offender: rates are increasing among all ages, ethnicities, and genders. The most recent numbers suggest more than one million Australians struggle with an eating disorder, according to the Australian Government Department of Health. The group of disorders includes conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and compulsive exercise. The issue is that there are many misconceptions about eating disorders, says associate professor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences, Dr Nancy Zucker.
The biggest myth “is that eating disorders are all about people’s concern with appearance,” says Zucker. “But I really think that’s the thing that leads people astray. These are really disorders of the self.” Often the conditions are about trying to take a measure of control in a world that feels out of their control.
Eating disorders can be potentially life-threatening or have long-lasting effects on an individual’s health. For example, anorexia can lead to health conditions such as anaemia, malnutrition, or low blood pressure, while binge eating can damage self-esteem while raising the risk of weight gain and heart disease. It’s important to remember that not all eating disorders lead to extreme weight loss – or gain. Learn more about spotting eating disorder symptoms that have nothing to do with weight.
Rigidity with food types
When a person is cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products), it may be a sign of an eating disorder, says Zucker. This is called orthorexia. She feels the food industry encourages rigid thinking by promoting one kind of food over another – “it cycles between carbs are bad, now fats are bad,” she says. Elimination diets can make things worse for people with eating disorders. “The diets can eliminate 85 per cent of the foods that you’re allowed to eat.”
Ignoring the body’s cues
When people make rigid rules about what they eat, they begin to override the body’s signals of hunger and fullness, says Zucker. In a 2016 study, published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers analysed brain function in a small sample of 23 women who had recovered from anorexia and a group of 17 healthy women who never had the condition. The researchers found that women with anorexia – even those in recovery – didn’t respond to hunger signals in the same way as their healthy counterparts. Their decreased response meant they were less motivated to eat.