One unfortunate side effect of the pandemic, continuous bombarding of ‘eat healthy’ for immunity information from across the board, the repeated lockdowns, and ensuing stress and loneliness and weight gain due to inactivity has been the silent rise of the eating disorders amidst people of all ages.
An eating disorder is characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits and can be of several types (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder).
It is important to know that eating disorders do not only affect teens and younger adults. They also impact middle-aged and older adults.
So it is important to keep a look out for the signs and nip it in the bud.
Detecting an eating disorder can be hard because what may seem like just a quest for healthy eating may actually be something very seriously abnormal.
But there are certain signs you can look out for (self and others) which will help identify it.
- Skipping meals, taking tiny portions, avoiding eating in front of other people, eating in ritualistic, and strange food combinations.
- Always having an excuse not to eat – not hungry, just ate with a friend, feeling ill, is upset, etc.
- Feeling “disgusted” with former favourite foods like fried treats and desserts.
- Eating only a few “safe” foods and boasting about how healthy the meals are.
- Become a vegetarian but not eating the necessary fats, oils, whole grains, and the denser fruits and vegetables like potatoes and bananas.
- Increase know-how on diets and diet food and drastically reduce or completely eliminate fat intake.
- Experimenting with laxatives, diet pills, or “natural” products from health food stores that claim to promote weight loss.
- Continuing dieting though you have already lost more than 20 percent of ideal body weight.
- Having frantic fears about putting on weight, spending lots of time inspecting oneself in the mirror and usually finding something to criticise.
- Wearing baggy clothes, sometimes in layers, to hide fat, hide emaciation, and staying warm.
- Feeling bad about oneself after eating a good meal and then becoming depressed and irritable.
Look Out For
In the cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally.
Thus, the body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy that can result in serious medical consequences.
- Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which mean that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
- Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
- Muscle loss and weakness.
- Changes in or loss of menstrual cycle
- Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
- Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness.
- Dry hair and skin
- Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm.
- Memory loss and lack of concentration.
Tackle It Right
Don’t take it lightly.
Disordered eating for a long time can cause serious, lasting damage.
If you suspect that you or someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, the sooner it is identified, the sooner it will be treated – and the easier it will be for the person to recover.
Here’s how to break the ice:
- Set a time to talk
Set aside a time for a private, relaxed meeting with the person to discuss your observations openly and honestly in a caring, supportive way.
Make sure to choose the right time and place (away from distractions) so they realise that it is a serious concern.
- Communicate your concerns.
Share your memories of specific things you have seen or felt that have caused you to worry about the persons eating or exercise behaviours.
Explain that you think these things may indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.
- Avoid conflicts or a battle of the wills.
If the person refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, or any reason for you to be concerned, restate your feelings and the reasons for them and leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener.
Remind them that you’re looking for their best interests and want them to be healthy and happy.
- Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt on the person regarding their actions or attitudes.
Do not use accusatory “you” statements like, “You just need to eat.” Or, “You are acting irresponsibly.”
Instead, use “I” statements.
For example: “I’m concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch.” Or, “It makes me scared to see you lose so much weight.”
- Avoid giving simple solutions.
For example, "If you'd just stop, then everything would be fine!"
Instead, express your continued support and offer to fix an appointment with a counsellor, doctor, nutritionist or any other health professional who can help.
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico), Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa) and Fix it with foods.)