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23 Sept 2018

Food For Thought: Can Bad Eating Habits Affect Your Mental Health?

Feeling guilty after eating a sumptuous meal, skipping meals with the fear of gaining weight, starving to reduce those extra kilos and feeling conscious about our bodies is more prevalent than ever before. While many of us feel the need to be lean and reduce weight, the unwarranted and consistent fear of gaining weight could be a symptom of a distorted body image disorder. A mental health condition which can cause forced starvation, compulsive exercising and depression that can even lead to self-harm. The people suffering from it believe that they are overweight when they are underweight, and they rely on not just diet but also over-exercising, induced vomiting, laxatives and weight loss pills to shed weight.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions wherein a person experiences a severe disturbance in their eating habits along with severe negative thoughts and emotions. Eating disorders are classified into six types identified as Pica, Rumination Disorder, Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. The last two types have shown high morbidity and mortality rate.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Anorexia Nervosa is essentially limiting the level of energy intake as per the requirements, which can lead to significantly low body weight. The persons suffering from this condition have an extreme fear of gaining weight. In a few cases, they may also be resistant to eating in public.

Eating Disorder

In the case of Bulimia Nervosa, one might experience frequent episodes of binge eating, inappropriate behaviour like vomiting to prevent weight gain, exercising irrationally and negative self-evaluation, which is largely impacted by body weight and food patterns. See Source

The correlation with self-harm

Eating disorders are highly risky, as they bring self-imposing rules which can be destructive if left unnoticed. In most cases, these disorders are also difficult to diagnose until they cause visible self-harm on the individual. Men and women who suffer from eating disorders are reported to have an increased chance of engaging in self-harm behaviours. Hence, it is crucial to understand how your negative eating habits, if persistent, might cause fatal damage.

As a practice, self-harm is largely conscious and intentional, but by drawing parallels between eating disorders and self-harm, we identify that repeated self-harm without conscious suicidal motivation can also be lethal. For instance, both show similar symptoms such as induced vomiting or exercising unreasonably with the main intention of inflicting self-pain or self-injury.

DSM-5 highlights that the rate of self-injury in people who suffer from eating disorders ranges from 26% to 55% amongst those diagnosed with Bulimia Nervosa and 27% to 61% amongst those diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Additionally, suicide risk is also perceived to be higher in people with the eating disorder. As many as 12 suicides per 100,000 per year are due to an eating disorder.

Factors which pay a role in the onset of an eating disorder

We all remember the characters that we grow up with, the slim-waisted, tall and flawless ‘Barbie’ who embraced various cultures through her fashion but always remained the same body type. The lean and muscular He-man, Batman and Superman who set the ideals for a man’s physique. Most children who grow up idolising such characters develop an affinity towards unrealistic beauty standards. To make it worse, our day to day lives are filled with body stereotyping and negative comments about body types, skin-tones, weight gain and even weight loss. Such body-shaming contributes to self-image issues, binge eating, purging and extreme weight control behaviours, which can cause serious damage to both the mind and the body.

Eating Disorder

People with eating disorders lend excessive focus on food and their body weight. The un-required attention on body-image, the labels associated with our body types, the diet rules and the resulting compensating behaviours restrict many from recognising their emotions and maintaining a healthy mind.

Other factors include having a profession which demands a lean body type with excessive emphasis on an ‘appropriate body figure’. Eating disorder could also be a result of a genetic connotation. Studies indicate that certain individuals with eating disorders have also reported a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects the controlling of hunger, appetite and digestion. See Source

How does treatment work for an eating disorder?

Although weight and diet-related issues are a common topic of discussion, we spare little thought to its impact on mental health. People suffering from eating disorders tend to avoid discussing their condition and therefore, restrict treatment. If you identify unhealthy eating patterns in yourself or your loved ones, here is what you could do:

  • Visit a mental health professional for support.
  • Talk to a nutritionist and discuss a balanced diet plan that fits you.
  • A proper body check-up must be done to determine which essential nutrients deficits are lacking in an individual.
  • Often group therapy is perceived to be very helpful in this as it provides a safe space to talk about the fears and experiences with an eating disorder.
  • A detailed assessment of the individuals with anorexia nervosa, which includes a test of suicide-related ideation and behaviours as well as other risk factors for suicide. See Source

Although, there is no exact prevention for eating disorders, cultivating a healthy lifestyle, reinforcing a balanced diet and regular exercising can have a positive impact on your body and help maintain mental well-being.

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