Updated: Feb 21
An often under-recognized mental health disorder, eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa as well as anorexia nervosa are distressingly prevalent in the lives of young adults. Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening and can seriously impact a person’s perception of themselves, which could lead to other mental health concerns. This illness is more than just a simple exercising or dieting problem: it affects a person cognitively, which in turn impacts their behavior. Often, it is much more difficult to treat a cognitive illness compared to a behavioral problem. In addition, the societal perceptions of beauty can make it difficult for some to accept their body, which may at worst lead to eating disorders.
Though there are many types of eating disorders, this article will focus on two: bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. They involve periods of gorging oneself on food and then purging the food out of their system (bulimia nervosa) and eating very little to nothing at all (anorexia nervosa). This can often be caused by body dysmorphia, a mental illness in which one dislikes the current state of their body to an intense degree. Body dysmorphia, as pertaining to the size or other appearance of one’s body, can lead to periods of starvation or periods of binging on food. These eating disorders can then destroy one’s body, leading to heart disease and other complications.
Eating disorders have a variety of symptoms. These can be both emotional and physical. They can also vary greatly depending on the type of eating disorder and severity. However, some common symptoms include the following (National Eating Disorders):
Behavior that indicates a greater focus on one’s body
Preoccupation with weight, food, dieting, calories, etc.
Refusal to eat certain foods
Ritualistic consuming of food e.g. chewing only three times
Skipping meals or changing portion size
Withdrawal from usual activities
Extreme concern with body size and/or shape
Extreme mood swings
Fluctuations in weight
Abnormal blood activity i.e. high cholesterol, low hemoglobin, etc.
Dizziness, particularly while standing
Feeling cold for prolonged periods of time, regardless of the temperature in the room
Cuts/calluses on finger joints from induced vomiting
Dry skin and brittle nails
Anorexia nervosa is a major eating disorder that is related to starving oneself as a means to achieve the individual’s ideal body size. It is often very common in models and actresses and females in general due to the societal perception of feminine beauty, but it is by no means limited to only women or those in the public eye. Society’s projection of slimness or other body shapes as “ideal” could lead to individuals feeling inferior due to their body size, leading to anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder, in particular, is mainly related to the social aspect of mental health illnesses and is directly affected by social trends.
Bulimia nervosa is another major eating disorder in which people go through periods of binging and fasting to “purge” themselves of food. One can binge eat for days and then immediately stop and assume a harsh training regimen to get rid of the food they ate. They may exhibit frequent bathroom usage, evidence of binge eating, excessive utilization of mouth cleansing products (mouthwash, gum, water, etc.), dental problems, induced vomiting, etc. Bulimia involves not only rapid weight gain and weight loss but also an innate compulsion to binge eat and then purge.
Eating disorders can be caused by a variety of reasons. For instance, based on one’s genetic history, they may have a predisposition to eating disorders. There are also other reasons that are based on individual temperament, such as one’s personality traits. If one is a perfectionist, neurotic, obsessive, and/or sensitive, one may be at a greater risk for eating disorders. Another reason for eating disorders is irregular brain and endocrine system activity, causing a cognitive craving for food or not. For example, the lateral and ventromedial hypothalamus(es) acts as an “on” and “off” switch for hunger, respectively. Tumors or other issues in the endocrine system can contribute to the cause of eating disorders. Young people are especially at risk for eating disorders as societal and peer pressure play critical roles in the conception of “fitting in.” Especially as puberty changes many people’s bodies, body image becomes ever more concerning. Overall, there isn’t always one specific cause for eating disorders: usually, it is a mixture of one’s circumstances as well as inherent systemic issues.
Eating disorders are serious but commonly misunderstood amongst youth. This is in part because of society and the perception of individuals who are obese or severely underweight. People generally regard eating disorders as a product of one’s behavior and mental fortitude, rather than a serious mental illness which could result in death. They believe that one should just “eat more” or “stop eating so much,” disregarding the tremendous amount of mental struggle that those with eating disorders go through. One cannot simply stop eating or start eating with a mental disorder. Similar to having a substance addiction, it requires a gradual adjustment to a change in food consumption level. Like a detox program, one has to slowly wean people off an unhealthy diet rather than ask them to stop it outright. Empathy and patience are key.
Despite scientific evidence, eating disorders are commonly mistaken as habits rather than serious mental problems. Worldwide, 70 million people suffer from some form of eating disorder (Mirror-Mirror Eating Disorder Statistics). Nonetheless, many lack diagnosis and treatment. People affected by eating disorders go through immense suffering as a result of a mental compulsion that they can’t control nor explain. In addition to this, society begins to judge them for their body, feeding insecurities caused by the eating disorder. It is important to never judge an individual by their body size and to ensure that we treat everyone equally no matter how they look. It is also crucial that we lead by example. Accept a compliment on your body rather than comment on all its flaws. Show others it’s more than okay to be positive about your own image. Eating disorders are heavily dependent upon social perceptions and standards of beauty, so we must work to change societal beliefs of what it means to be beautiful.
Beauty isn’t an external characteristic: it’s an internal one. Spreading this message and truly believing in it can help those with eating disorders rid themselves of fear.