How Can You Help Stop Dangerous Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders, affect millions of people every year, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

These illnesses include extreme attitudes, emotions and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating Disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life threatening consequences for males and females. That’s why it’s essential that sufferers get professional medical help.

It’s time to talk about it, because help is available!

How Can We Help Victims of These Eating Disorders?

The first steps are:

Anorexia Nervosa

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people with anorexia nervosa are typically dangerously underweight. They may:

  • Weigh themselves often
  • Severely restrict the amount of food they eat
  • Eat small amounts of only specific foods

This illness can be fatal. In fact it has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. The NIMH lists these warning signs of anorexia nervosa.

  • Extremely restricted eating
  • Extreme thinness
  • Relentless quest for thinness
  • Unwillingness to get to a normal or healthy weight
  • Excessive fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Self-esteem that’s strongly influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape. The person may also deny the seriousness of low body weight

These symptoms may develop over time:

  • Bone thinning (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Mild anemia, muscle wasting and weakness, lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Dry and yellowish skin. Hair and nails that become brittle. Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Multi-organ failure, brain damage, damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Internal body temperature drop that can cause a person to feel cold all the time
  • Infertility

Bulimia Nervosa

With this disorder, people have frequent, repeating and uncontrolled episodes of eating large amounts of food. The binge eating is typically followed by efforts to get rid of the food. The disorder victim may employ one or a combination of:

  • Forced vomiting
  • Use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Extensive fasting
  • Excessive exercising

Those who have this illness usually maintain a relatively normal weight. The NIMH lists symptoms as:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw
  • Worn tooth enamel along with sensitive and decaying teeth (as a result of repeated exposure to stomach acid)
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals). This imbalance can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge-eating disorder

This illness is the most common in the U.S. With binge-eating disorder, people lose control of their eating.

This disorder differs from bulimia nervosa in that the binge-eating is not followed by purging, excessive exercise or fasting. Because of this difference, people with binge-eating disorder are typically overweight or obese. The NIMH lists symptoms as:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a set amount of time or eating quickly
  • Eating even when full, not hungry or until uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Feeling distressed, ashamed or guilty about eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

How Can You Help Someone With an Eating Disorder?

Talking with someone you feel may have an eating disorder can be difficult. The National Eating Disorder Association offers these suggestions:

  • Set up a time to talk. Have your visit in a private, relaxed setting.
  • Share your concerns openly and honestly in a loving, supporting and non-confrontational way. Explain the specific things you’ve noticed that have caused you to worry. Describe things you’ve seen that may indicate there could be a problem that requires professional attention.
  • Ask your friend if they would be willing to explore these concerns with a professional. If you’re both comfortable, you can help make an appointment with a counselor, nutritionist or doctor. Offer to go with your friend. 
  • Avoid a conflict with your friend if they don’t accept that there is a problem or a reason for you to be concerned. Your initial conversation is a starting point. Your friend may be initially defensive, but hopefully will think about your concerns. Be sure to share that you’re available as a supportive listener.
  • Avoid negative comments that place shame or blame on your friend. Don’t use “you” statements such as “You need to eat.” Rather, use “I” statements such as “I’m concerned about you because you skip too many meals.” Or “I get scared when I hear you vomiting.”
  • Avoid giving simple solutions such as “Just stop this and everything will be fine.”
  • Let your friend know they have your continued support. You care and want your friend to be healthy and happy.

If you’re still concerned after you talk with your friend, visit with a health care professional about your concerns.

Remember, eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses — not choices. Additional help and guidance is available.

Eating Disorder Awareness Week February 26 – March 4

Meet the Author

Dinshah D. Gagrat, MD, is the Medical Director of adult services and the eating disorder program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Wauwatosa, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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