Understanding Eating Disorders

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Eating disorders include anorexia and bulimia but should also encompass other patterns of dysfunctional relationships with food that are manifested in binge eating disorder (BED) and "bigorexia" (muscle dysmorphia). Improved understanding of different types of eating disorders and the underlying mental state can make it easier to empathize with a loved one.

Defining Eating Disorders

One of the biggest hurdles in promoting understanding of eating disorders is there are often stark definitions between what constitutes an eating disorder and what does not. With anorexia and bulimia being widely accepted as eating disorders, other forms of eating disorders are more likely to be regarded as a matter of lacking willpower, which further impedes the goal of healthy food and body relationships. For example, BED (or compulsive overeating) has similarities to bulimia.

Both are easily hidden because binging is often hidden from friends and family. The person with bulimia purges after binges unlike the person with BED, who may or may not pack on the pounds. Instead of the person with BED being regarded as having an eating disorder, they are more likely to be viewed as lazy and lacking willpower, unlike their bulimic counterpart. The only real difference is the act of purging and whether or not their binging shows up on the scale. Both can live a lifetime with an undiagnosed eating disorder if their weight remains relatively constant.

Gender Stereotypes

Bigorexia can also fall off the radar when it comes to eating disorders. Some schools of thought consider the condition one of body dysmorphia, rather than an eating disorder. In reality, many people with anorexia and bulimia have some degree of body dysmorphia. Additionally, the majority of people with bigorexia are male, which often leads to less concern about the problem. Since eating disorders disproportionately affect females, dysfunctional food relationships are more likely to be overlooked in males even when the disorder is a "classic" eating disorder, such as anorexia and bulimia.

The condition of bigorexia is not purely about the obsession and aesthetics of having large muscles. A component of developing muscles or having the ideal physique may be having obsessions over food. Components of other eating disorders may be observed in bigorexia, such as constantly exercising to exhaustion or when sick, binging, purging, and the use of diuretics or laxatives.

You Can't Will It Away

No eating disorder is solved with willpower. For people who do not truly understand eating disorders, their solution is often for the person to simply eat more (or less) and exercise less (or more). For those with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, there is often an obsession with weight gain or perceived body fat and sometimes the desire to control their lives can manifest itself as an eating disorder. They do not look in the mirror and see a person who may have withered away into just skin and bones. Every protrusion of their body is evidence of fat, when it is obvious to others it is their bones poking through their skin.

Some people with eating disorders may be very calculating in how much they eat or exercise each day. Even a few bites of lettuce may be calculated to a fraction of a calorie and necessitate hours of exercise to ensure it is burned off or use of laxatives in hopes of ridding it from their system. For the person with BED, the sight, smells, taste, and emotions attached to food can lead to binging. They may eat normally for days or weeks, only for something to trigger a binge and eat to the point of becoming sick. Although the pain and misery associated with an overly full stomach or vomiting may thwart a binge for a moment, binges are difficult to keep at bay for long periods.

Eating disorders are a complex subject and many people find it difficult to understand the psychological side of these disorders. Understanding the struggle of a loved one can make it easier to be supportive and help them seek treatment. Contact a professional for more about this topic.