For some, poor body image is a sign of a serious problem: an eating disorder. Eating disorders are not just about food. They are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control. They are complicated illnesses that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth, and self-esteem.
When someone has an eating disorder, their weight is the prime focus of their life. Their focus on calories, grams of fat, exercise and weight gives them a false sense of being in control.
There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
The signs of an eating disorder often start before a person looks unwell, so weight should never be the only consideration.
A person who experiences anorexia nervosa may refuse to keep their weight at a normal weight for their body by restricting the amount of food they eat or exercising much more than usual. They may feel overweight regardless of their actual weight. They may think about their body weight often and use it to measure their self-worth.
Restricting food can affect a person’s entire body. Anorexia nervosa can cause heart and kidney problems, low blood iron, bone loss, digestive problems, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and fertility problems in women.
Bulimia nervosa involves periods of uncontrollable binge-eating, followed by purging (via vomiting or taking laxatives). People who experience bulimia nervosa may feel overweight regardless of their actual weight. They may think about their body weight often and use it to measure their self-worth.
Health problems caused by bulimia nervosa may include kidney problems, dehydration, and digestive problems. Vomiting often can damage a person’s teeth, mouth, and throat.
Binge-eating disorder involves periods of over-eating. People who experience binge-eating disorder may feel like they can’t control how much they eat, and feel distressed, depressed, or guilty after bingeing. Many people try to keep bingeing a secret. Binge-eating can be a way to cope or find comfort, and it can sometimes develop after dieting. Some people may fast (not eat for a period of time) or diet after periods of binge-eating.
Binge-eating disorder can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or weight concerns.
Who does it affect?
Eating disorders can affect anyone, but some people may be at higher risk. People who experience lower self-esteem or poor body image, perfectionism, or difficulties dealing with stress may be more likely to experience an eating disorder. A lack of positive social supports and other important connections may also play a big part. In some cases, eating disorders can go along with other mental illnesses.
Our beliefs around body image are also important. While the media may often portray thinness as an ideal body type, this alone doesn’t cause an eating disorder. How we think about those messages and apply them to our lives is what affects our self-esteem and self-worth.