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With a set of obscure symptoms that seem to only present themselves plainly in hindsight, eating disorders have an insidious talent for creeping up on those who have them.

Lauren Aron, Social Worker and Dewald Louw, Counselling Psychologist at Akeso Montrose Manor Clinic are speakers at the upcoming South African College of Applied Psychology Festival of Learning held on May 25 in Cape Town.  

“Literature indicates that there is an even higher prevalence of eating disorders in the student population than previously speculated. They are one of the most complex mental health disorders to treat,” said Louw.

According to Louw, the onset of these disorders often take place in early adolescence, but the challenges become even more significant when the young adult needs to start living independently.

There are three main types of eating disorders, Aron said.

The most common eating disorders have different symptoms, but share common emotional triggers:

  • Anorexia (Anorexia Nervosa): a disease where the sufferer starves themselves because of the desire to maintain an unrealistic and unhealthy body image

  • Bulimia (Bulimia Nervosa): a disease that triggers the sufferer to consume very large amounts of food (binge), and then to rid themselves of excess calories (purge)

  • Binge-Eating Disorder (BED): a disease where the sufferer compulsively overeats, often thousands of calories in a short period, and frequently in secret and often feels a loss of control.

Behaviours associated with eating disorders may include:

  • Constant adherence to increasingly strict diets, regardless of weight

  • Habitual trips to the bathroom immediately after eating

  • Secretly bingeing on large amounts of food

  • Hoarding large amounts of food

  • Increase in consumption of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills

  • Exercising compulsively, often several hours per day

  • Using rituals, such as cutting food into small pieces or weighing food

  • Dressing in layers to hide one's weight and body

Despite different symptoms, eating disorders share common roots that depend on genetics, environmental factors, medical history, life experiences, and the presence of co-occurring psychiatric and addictive disorders.

Image: Pexels

Common signs of the emotional changes associated with having an eating disorder are:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family, particularly following questions about her disease or visible physical/medical side effects.

  • Avoidance of meals or situations where food may be present.

  • Preoccupation with weight, body size and shape, or specific aspects of one’s appearance.

  • Obsessing over calorie intake and calories burned by exercise, even as one may be losing significant amounts of weight.

  • Feeling guilty after eating.

Louw shared what you need to know about your loved one's eating disorder:

  • An eating disorder is a mental illness.

  • You don’t have to be a certain weight to have an eating disorder.

  • Food is only a symptom of an eating disorder. The real issue is a person’s relationship with self or others or how they cope with their emotions.

  • Common symptoms associated with an eating disorder are anxiety, depression, OCD, alcohol and substance abuse.

  • Compared to other psychiatric conditions, an eating disorder has the highest mortality rate.

  • Although there are more women who suffer from eating disorders, it is common in men.

  • Orthorexia and excessive exercise can be symptoms of an eating disorder

  • An eating disorder is not a choice- genetics and the environment also play an important part.

  • Putting an overweight person on a restrictive diet does not work

  • Recovery, although challenging, is absolutely possible.