An estimated 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by an eating disorder with 400 new cases each year resulting in 80 deaths annually (Vision for Change 2006). Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are serious mental health problems more common in women than in men.
What are eating disorders?
You may be diagnosed with an eating disorder if your eating habits threaten your health and happiness or threaten the health and happiness of the people who care for you.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These affect about 2% of adult females and some men. Both are serious mental health problems and anyone experiencing them needs a great deal of help and understanding.
People with anorexia nervosa don’t eat enough, usually because they feel that their problems are caused by what they look like. They think that they appear fat even though they may look slim or even painfully thin to others. Their morale becomes low and their health can be seriously affected. Because they are not eating enough they may develop a number of physical problems including poor circulation, brittle bones and hair loss, as well as kidney disease.
People with bulimia nervosa can’t stick to a healthy eating pattern. They tend to binge, that is, eat a lot at once. This makes them feel guilty and out of control so they then panic and punish themselves by starving, making themselves sick, taking laxatives or over-exercising. This can lead to a number of physical problems including tooth decay, constipation and intestinal damage, as well as heart and kidney disease. Tell-tale signs of bulimia nervosa include making excuses to avoid eating in company or rushing to the lavatory after a meal.
What causes eating disorders?
Eating disorders usually have underlying causes. For example, if you are a teenager, hormone changes and lack of confidence, or problems such as bullying or difficulties with schoolwork, can trigger the conditions. Refusing or bingeing on food may make you feel you have some control over your life.
Some people attribute eating disorders to media and fashion. It is fashionable in western culture to be slim. This is not possible for everyone as we are naturally all different shapes and sizes. People with eating disorders very often feel that they can only ever be happy or successful if they can be more like images portrayed in the media.
What treatments are there for eating disorders?
There are a number of self-help books available in the shops. You can use these on your own, with a friend or with help from your GP or practice nurse. These books can be very helpful in describing strategies for improving your eating habits. They are generally written by medical experts but draw on the experience of people who have eating disorders.
Some people find that these books are a useful first stage in getting help. They can teach you about some of the ways of dealing with your eating disorder and they can also get you used to reading about or discussing problems which you have previously kept completely to yourself.
Help from carers
If someone you care about has an eating disorder, or is starting to show some of the symptoms, it is important that you let them know you are available for any help or support they ask for. You can offer suggestions, such as reading about the condition or joining a self-help group, but they have to make the decisions or their fear of being controlled will increase.
Help from a doctor
The first stage for many people with an eating disorder will be to talk to their family doctor (GP). Your doctor may not be an expert in treating eating disorders, but he/she will be able to assess any physical problems resulting from your eating disorder and can also help you to contact specialist eating disorder services.
The most successful treatment for eating disorders in the longer term may be by talking to a specialist who can help with your emotional needs and can help you take control of your eating. ‘Talking treatments’ link to a-z such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are generally considered to be the most effective way of treating eating disorders because they deal with the deeper emotional issues rather than simply with the obvious problems.