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Posted by Lauren Owens

Understanding eating disorders: struggles, myths, and treatments

Understanding eating disorders: struggles, myths, and treatments
4 minute read

We spoke with one of our dietitians, Lauren Owens, about eating disorders - read on for her expert view.

What is eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have devastating impacts on someone’s physical health, emotional wellbeing, and everyday lives.

By raising awareness, we’re not only spreading knowledge but also dispelling myths that often surround these conditions. It’s about creating an environment where those struggling feel seen and supported rather than shrouded in the shadows of misunderstanding and stigma.

Let’s delve into the often concealed and complex issues that come with eating disorders, to reveal the hidden battles many faces in silence. They are not just about food but are often deeply rooted in psychological distress and require compassionate understanding and treatment.

Types of eating disorders

There are various types of eating disorders but the most known among these conditions are:

Anorexia nervosa - characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image, leading to severe food restriction and weight loss.

Bulimia nervosa - involves periods of binge eating followed by actions to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise.

Binge eating disorder - is marked by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort, without the compensatory behaviours seen in bulimia.

In addition to the well known eating disorders, there are lesser known types of eating disorders, some only recently recognised though no less important and requiring proper understanding and treatment. These include:

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) - characterised by a lack of interest in food or aversion to certain textures or smells, leading to nutritional deficiencies.

Pica - involves craving and consuming non-food substances like dirt or chalk. Rumination disorder - is marked by the repeated regurgitation of food, which may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out.

Prevalence of eating disorders in Ireland

Eating disorders are not uncommon, the HSE estimates that about 188,895 of the Irish population may experience eating disorders at one point in their lives. The development of eating disorders in men and women is complex and multifaceted, in which societal pressures and perceptions of body image play significant and influential roles. Other potential causes: trauma, bullying, family and / or relationship difficulties. We live in a world that often equates thinness with success and happiness, a narrative perpetuated by media and popular culture. This skewed perception can create an environment where individuals feel immense pressure to meet unrealistic standards, potentially triggering disordered eating behaviours to cope with or conform to these expectations.   

Unmasking the struggles of eating disorders

The journey of those living with eating disorders is often shrouded in silence and misunderstanding. Beyond the widely recognised symptoms and behaviours lies a depth of struggle seldom discussed openly.

Everyday battles beyond food

When thinking of eating disorders, many picture extreme dieting, binging, or purging. Yet, there’s so much more beneath the surface. The emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and profound feelings of inadequacy are just some of the internal battles people face. These issues can seep into every aspect of life, affecting relationships, education, and work, creating a relentless cycle of anxiety and distress.

Stigma and misconceptions

The stigma surrounding eating disorders often leads to misconceptions that these are merely choices or phases that one can easily ‘snap out of’. This could not be further from the truth. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that require understanding and medical assistance. Stigma breeds isolation, as sufferers may feel judged or misunderstood, compounding their struggles, and deterring them from seeking help.

The impact of stereotypes

Stereotypes about who can be affected by eating disorders also contribute to the hidden struggles. It’s a myth that these disorders only affect young women. Older adults, people from diverse economic backgrounds, and men are also at risk, yet they may be less likely to be diagnosed due to prevailing stereotypes. This can lead to a lack of support and recognition for a significant portion of those suffering.

Raising awareness about the full spectrum of experiences is the first step in creating an environment where individuals feel safe to
seek help. Destigmatising these conditions
will encourage a more empathetic societal approach, ultimately leading to better outcomes for those affected.

Eating disorder treatment options

General Practitioners (GPs): The first point of contact for help is usually a GP. They play a crucial role in identifying eating disorders and referring individuals for further assessment or treatment by specialist services.  

Specialist Services: There is an HSE app for eating disorder and independent treatment centres available all over Ireland. These services provide treatment options and support systems for eating disorder recovery from healthcare professionals like dieticians, therapists, and medical doctors.