Eating disorders are not a new phenomenon, but over the past three years, the number of teenagers being admitted to hospital has almost doubled. Increased access to the internet, and particularly social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and picture-sharing sites, has potentially fuelled this growth, as our young people are increasingly exposed to imagery and content that leaves them feeling inadequate about their own self-image.

What Are Eating Disorders?

An eating disorder is primarily an illness of the mind. Those suffering from an eating disorder will commonly have low self-esteem, coupled with an obsession with their weight and appearance. The three main types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa: individuals suffering from anorexia will severely control their food intake in a bid to lose weight. Most sufferers will perceive themselves as fat even though they are in fact dangerously thin. Some anorexics may also exercise compulsively in a further bid to lose weight. Sufferers of anorexia are at serious risk of malnutrition due to their limited food intake.
  • Bulimia nervosa: this eating disorder is more difficult to spot and diagnose, as sufferers of bulimia will often either stay at the same weight or lose very little For this reason, it can go undiagnosed for a long time. Sufferers of bulimia may control their calorie intake some of the time, but will also go through periods of binge eating followed by purging. While they are at lower risk of malnutrition, bulimia sufferers are at risk of dehydration and digestive problems due to repeated enforced vomiting.
  • Binge eating disorder: unlike the previous disorders, sufferers of binge eating disorder do not try to control their food intake. Rather they will eat to excess, even when not hungry. Sufferers of this disorder have little or no control over how much food they eat, and will often have feelings of shame and disgust at their bingeing. Like the other eating disorders, sufferers of binge eating disorder experience feelings of low self-esteem.

There is another, more recently recorded eating disorder. It is a product of modern day society, and while not officially recognised as an eating disorder, has been recorded and diagnosed. Orthorexia nervosa, the name given to the disorder by Dr Steven Bratman who was the first person to be diagnosed with the disorder, is an obsessive fixation with ‘healthy’ eating to the point where the person’s diet becomes so restricted that he or she begins to suffer symptoms of malnutrition. Sufferers of the disorder become obsessed with ‘clean eating’, removing whole food groups from their diet and spending substantial amounts of time planning precise daily menus. Initially, this may not appear to be a disorder, as in our modern lifestyles it is considered a good thing to be careful of what you eat. However, even though the disorder begins as a desire to be healthy, a severely restricted diet will ultimately have complications, and symptoms of malnutrition will appear.

How Has the Internet Impacted Eating Disorders?

Our modern-day culture is hugely reliant on technology to guide us through our daily lives, but along with the helpful side comes the darker side of our increased connectivity. We have far more access to news, social media, blogs, and images than ever before, and our news feeds are full of pictures of celebrities with ‘perfect’ bodies and not a fat bulge in sight. Advertising tells us that buying this shampoo or that perfume will make us more attractive, taking this pill will help us lose weight, and so on. Everything revolves around looking good, and advertising constantly reinforces the message that to be successful and attractive you have to look ‘right’.

On top of that are the increasing number of websites that actively encourage anorexia and bulimia. These ‘pro-ana’ or ‘thinspiration’ sites purport to be there to provide to support to sufferers of eating disorders; some even have a front page containing a ‘disclaimer’ stating that they are there to support recovery and would never encourage anyone to have an eating disorder. But delve a bit deeper, and you quickly find out that this is exactly what they are doing.

These sites are full of images of painfully thin girls, labelled as ‘thinspiration’ to encourage further weight loss. They have pages of tips on how to lose weight, how to avoid eating, rules, etc. One even has a set of ‘Commandments’ for the anorexia sufferer to follow; they make frightening reading. For anyone teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, these sites could push them very firmly over the edge. Ironically, they often include links to body weight calculators – accurate and safe ones – whose suggested body weights are appropriate, healthy, and far above the weights of the girls in the pictures the sites are full of.

What Help Is Available for Eating Disorders?

If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, then it is important to get help as soon as possible. The earlier an eating disorder is treated, the far greater the chance of the sufferer making a full recovery.

At Liberty House, our counsellors have experience in dealing with eating disorders. They can help you or your loved one to understand the reasons behind the eating disorder and help you to change your attitude to food. Please call us today for more information.