Despite what its name suggests, eating disorders are not just about food. They are mental conditions that result in individuals developing unhealthy eating habits, typically extreme undereating or overeating.
A rising number of Singaporeans are suffering from eating disorders, some of them as young as nine years old. It may seem surprising in a country like Singapore, where food is an integral part of our culture. But hospitals are seeing an alarming increase in eating disorder cases, especially amongst teenage girls, where the pressure of social acceptance is heavily tied to body image.
There are multiple factors for an eating disorder, including: genetics, social and cultural pressure, and personality traits. Eating disorders can have long-lasting health consequences on the individual. In more serious cases, if left untreated, eating disorders may even lead to death.
However, eating disorders can be overcome with the right professional help and social support.
Common Types of Eating Disorders
Anorexia Nervosa: Characterised by severe restriction of one’s food intake
Persons suffering from anorexia nervosa are driven by an intense fear of gaining weight. Anorexia is characterised when a person obsessively avoids food or liquids, that leads to spiralling rapid weight loss. They may also resort to purging (self-induced vomiting) or laxative abuse. Sufferers have a distorted idea of their body image and may perceive themselves as overweight even when they are not.
In the long-term, anorexia nervosa can result in negative impact on one’s health such as bone loss, infertility, brain damage, and organ failure.
Bulimia Nervosa: Associated with cycles of binge-eating then purging
Sufferers of bulimia nervosa go through cycles of binge eating, followed by behaviours to compensate for the overeating such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or use of laxatives or diuretics. This cycle of binging and purging is typically done in secret, and some individuals may go to great lengths to hide this.
Bulimia nervosa can eventually result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, dehydration, and heart difficulties due to electrolyte imbalances.
Peresons with binge eating disorders will tend to binge excessively, impulsively and continuously, often in secret. This may go on until the person is uncomfortably full. This disorder is usually emotionally-induced – it can be inherited after an emotional situation, which causes the individual to resort to eating as a form of comfort. However, after binge-eating, they may feel a sense of guilt and self-loathing. Unlike bulimia nervosa, sufferers from binge eating will not use purging behaviours to compensate for their excessive eating.
Binge eating often results in obesity, which increases the risk of medical complications such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
What Are The Signs?
Below are some common signs that you may see in someone suffering from an eating disorder:
- Distorted perception of weight
- Preoccupation with food
- Emotionally-induced eating behaviour
- Self-loathing and guilt associated with eating
- Reduced concentration and thinking
- Increased moodiness and irritability
- Obsessive routines
- Social withdrawal and isolation
5 Myths about eating disorders
Myth 1: Eating disorders only affect women and teenagers
Fact: While eating disorders may be more common amongst younger women, eating disorders are not limited by gender nor age. Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder.
Myth 2: People choose to have an eating disorder
Fact: Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice. Sufferers may feel a helplessness over their behaviours. It should not be mistaken for more mundane eating behaviours, like deciding to eat more during a celebration or skipping a meal because you’re busy with work.
Myth 3: People can “snap out” of eating disorders
Fact: As eating disorders are caused by a complex mix of reasons, sufferers require professional help to treat their eating disorders. As such, being aggressive towards someone with an eating disorder may be ineffective at curbing their disordered eating. Instead, this may back-fire and spur them to hide their behaviours even more.
Myth 4: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder as they would be very thin
Fact: The media often portrays individuals with eating disorders as stick thin. However, in reality, people with eating disorders do not conform towards one body type. Many individuals may even avoid detection from their loved ones because they do not fit into the mental image of someone suffering from disordered eating.
Myth 5: If a person with an eating disorder resumes normal eating habits, it means that he or she has recovered.
Fact: Eating normally is an important part of recovery but is not the only aspect. This is because eating disorders are not just about food but are mental health issues as well. For a complete recovery, individuals may also require counselling to work through and resolve the issues that had triggered the disordered eating.
How to help someone with an eating disorder
1. Understand what are eating disorders
Read up to find out more about eating disorders so that you will be armed with the knowledge to help your loved ones. Below are two useful sources on how to approach and support someone with an eating disorder:
2. Approach this with the right frame of mind
It is essential to remember that neither you nor the sufferer is to be blamed for the onset of the disorder. Acknowledge that eating disorders are mental disorders. Recovery would require patience and time.
3. Provide your loved one with a safe space
Speak privately to them and let them know that you will be there for them. You can ask what you can do to help; but if they want to be left alone, remind them that you will be there if they need a listening ear.
4. Be prepared for negative reactions
Some persons with eating disorders may be glad that someone has noticed their struggle, while some may react negatively and become hostile. No matter what their reaction is, let them know that you still care and are open to conversation anytime.
5. Reduce the anxiety during mealtimes
Mealtimes are a particularly stressful period for those suffering from eating disorders. Keep conversation neutral and avoid discussing topics such as diets or exercise.
6. Continue to involve them socially
Always offer the opportunity to join in social activities and plan activities that do not involve food or exercise. This is because persons with eating disorders may become more socially withdraw. Organise group activities such as crafts, handiwork or board games, to let them know they have a strong network that they can depend on.
The journey to recovery from eating disorders can be long and arduous, depending on the severity of the condition. It is important to surround yourself with positive experiences and influences, and learn more about nutrition and healthy living, so that you can foster a positive relationship with food.
It is ideal to seek professional help early on if you or your loved ones are suffering from eating disorders, to ensure the condition does not worsen. Doctor Anywhere has a team of qualified mental health experts, who will be able to support you on your journey towards recovery.