Facts about Eating Disorders

People with eating disorders may do some of these things:

  • eat very little
  • only eat certain foods
  • eat much larger  than average amounts of food than in a short amount of time
  • eliminate certain foods or entire food groups
  • see foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’
  • eat only in private, or alone
  • vomit or use laxatives to get rid of food and lessen anxiety about eating or weight gain
  • buy foods just for a binge
  • think about food constantly, including planning what to eat or not eat
  • extreme or compulsive exercise
  • ask for opinions from other people about their size “Do you think I’m fat?” or eating habits (“Did I eat too much?”)
  • spend more time in private
  • exercise alone
  • stop doing activities or avoiding social gatherings if food is involved
  • avoid situations where others might see their body, like swimming or changing clothes in a communal change area
  • exercise even when they are sick, hurt, or very tired
  • exercise or eat at odd times like in the middle of the night when others are sleeping

 People with eating disorders may feel:

  • extremely anxious or worried if they eat a food they consider bad, forbidden, or unhealthy
  • ashamed of their body
  • they are larger than they really are
  • unable to stop their behaviours
  • distracted or unable to concentrate
  • depressed or sad
  • unable to cope if they don’t exercise
  • an intense desire for a very thin, or very fit body
  • like they are special; like most people could not live on their food intake, or attain their body size, or that they’re immune to consequences of the eating disorder
  • afraid to tell other people, often for fear of judgment

 People with eating disorders may believe:

  • eating food they consider ‘bad’ will make them gain weight immediately
  • missing a workout will immediately change the shape or size of their body
  • life would be different if they had the ‘right body’
  • thinness or fitness is extremely important, no matter what their actual body size
  • their behaviour is normal or healthy; others may feel the opposite – that they are ‘crazy’ or ‘messed up’

Physical signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • feeling cold, even when it’s warm or when dressed in layers
  • paleness
  • dry skin
  • dizziness
  • weight loss or weight gain
  • bloating
  • swelling of the face from purging
  • marks or scarring on the knuckles from purging
  • stress fractures or injuries from overexercise
  • missed periods
  • swelling of the ankles, feet or hands
  • tiredness
  • insomnia

While most people with eating disorders know about the potential harm, they feel they can’t stop their behaviour. Loved ones should undertand that the behaviour helps the person cope with stress and uncomfortable feelings. It is not just about food.

Types of Eating Disorders

Commonly, eating disorders fall into the categories below. While anorexia and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders, many people with eating disorders fall into the category of Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder. It’s important to note that many people may not meet these diagnoses, but their behaviours affect their well-being and could impact their health. This should still be taken seriously.

It’s also very important not to make assumptions about symptoms or behaviours based on someone’s body size. People who have eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Many have been dismissed because they appear to ‘look fine’. Don’t underestimate an eating disorder simply because someone’s body size or shape. Eating disorders affect people of all genders and of all ages. 

Anorexia Nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa are obsessed with thinness, and are often intensely afraid of gaining weight. They may be very underweight but not always. They eat very little and will resist eating when they are hungry. They often feel like their bodies are much larger than they are. Often they have ritualistic ways of eating or exercising.

People with anorexia often:

  • spend a lot of time thinking about food or planning meals
  • love to cook for others but will not eat what they make
  • exercise in a driven way, regardless of whether they are sick or tired
  • avoid places or gatherings where food is present
  • eat only when alone
  • wear layers or baggy clothes to conceal weight loss
  • measure their bodies or weigh themselves frequently
  • minimize or hide the severity of their behaviours
  • cut out certain foods, or food groups

The health consequences of anorexia include:

  • bone density loss
  • heart failure
  • hair loss
  • dry skin
  • loss of menstrual periods
  • digestive issues
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • the growth of a downy hair on the body, called lanugo

Anorexia also has the highest death rate of any mental illness. Anorexia rarely goes away without treatment. The longer behaviours go untreated, the harder it can be to change.

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa may try to restrict their food intake in some way. They then eat and feel extremely guilty, often eating much more than they intend to. Out of control eating is called binge eating. After a binge, people with bulimia try to get rid of the calories by vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising excessively.

People with bulimia often:

  • feel extremely guilty and ashamed of their behaviour
  • feel like failed dieters, or like they lack self control
  • find that bingeing and purging helps calm them
  • feel intensely anxious if they have eaten and cannot purge
  • visit a bathroom after eating; they may run the water or take a shower so others don’t hear them purging
  • seem to prefer one washroom, like a basement washroom that is more private

Many people with bulimia hide their behaviour because they fear being judged others. Often people with bulimia do not appear outwardly ill, so others may not notice their behaviour. Bulimia can lead to serious health problems, including:

  • heart and kidney problems
  • electrolyte imbalance
  • damage to the mouth, throat or teeth
  • gum problems
  • chest pain
  • muscle cramps
  • fatigue

Laxative use can lead to dependence, as well as bowel damage and dehydration.

Binge Eating Disorder

Almost all people with binge eating disorder have a history of dieting. They may have grown up in a bigger body than considered desirable and felt pressure to be smaller. After dieting for some time, the body’s natural response is to want food. For some people, this leads to binge eating. Dieting is not a solution, and in fact, can make the problem worse. It also reinforces the shame people have about their bodies.

People who binge eat:

  • eat a large amount of food in a short period of time
  • may eat very quickly
  • feel very ashamed about their bodies
  • may eat alone
  • often have weight cycling (their weight has gone up and down over time)
  • usually feel very guilty and ashamed of binge eating
  • do not use vomiting, compulsive exercise, or laxatives to control their weight
  • feel out of control during binges
  • may plan their binges, or it may feel more spontaneous, for example, eating dinner, having dessert, then feeling unable to stop eating

Many people with binge eating disorder plan to diet through the day, then find themselves very hungry in the evening, and end up bingeing. This can lead to shame and feeling like they have failed or lack control. They may resolve to do better the following day and plan to diet again. While some people with binge eating disorder have large bodies, some do not. People may be surprised or may not believe them if they share that they binge eat.

Full recovery from an eating disorder can happen for everyone. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, or how long the eating disorder has been part of your life. It can be a difficult journey at times, but supports are available. Recovery is possible!