Eating disorders are psychiatric conditions related to irregular eating habits and behaviours that affect over 10 million people across the world.
While it’s tough to find India specific data because eating disorders were considered “to be a problem that was largely confined to the more highly industrialized nations”, there has been much written about adolescents in our country being affected by the disorder nowadays.
People with eating disorders typically become pre-occupied with food and their body weight, size and shape, psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Chugh told Huffpost India.
Most eating disorders have their onset in adolescence or early adulthood, Prachi Akhavi, a therapist at Antaraal, said. She added that eating disorders affect more women than men.
However, Dr Prerna Kohli, a clinical psychologist, said that the number of men who consult her for eating disorders has increased in the last few years.
Tanya Vasunia, a psychologist at Mpower, said that those who struggle with such disorders face extreme low self-esteem, rigid thought patterns and anxiety.
The most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.
Forms of eating disorders
Anorexia is characterised by excessive weight loss and an intense fear of obesity, said Akhavi.
Bulimia involves bouts of excessive eating followed by purging through puking or intake of laxatives, she added. Bulimia can be more difficult to spot as the sufferer may not lose weight in the same way as in anorexia, Binita Priyambada, a consultant for docprime.com, wrote for Firstpost.
Binge eating, on the other hand, usually does not have purging symptoms. It involves intake of unusually large amounts of food in short periods of time followed by feelings of guilt and shame, Akhavi said.
What are the causes?
Factors leading to eating disorders usually have psychological roots, experts say. “Some people have a poor self image and feel that others will not find them attractive if they are not extremely thin,” said Kohli.
Chugh said that emotional distress caused by a poor self image or the stress stemming from personal, social and other work related problems, could lead to people indulging in unhealthy eating patterns that later take the shape of a disorder.
“An unfortunate reality like fat shaming/body shaming almost automatically puts a huge amount of pressure on young, impressionable minds to be thin because of which they would either starve or adopt unhealthy eating habits like bingeing and purging,” Chugh said.
Akhavi said, “Our relationship with our bodies is at the centre of the eating disorders.” In some ways all of these disorders represent the struggle to establish control over our bodies, she added.
Treatment for eating disorders
The experts said that counselling was the best form of helping people with an eating disorder.
“Therapy can help in rethinking and rebuilding one’s relationship with one’s body,” said Akhavi.
She also suggested support groups that help in dealing with the associated feelings of shame or fear.
Therapists also use medication to manage depression or anxiety which is often associated with eating disorders.
How can families help?
Vasunia said that it is imperative that families support the individual. Being kind but firm is key in assisting the individual to seek help.
Being sensitive while communicating with the individual is also important, she said while adding that family members must avoid disregarding their feelings or making them feel silly.
Akhavi said the families as well as the individual need to psycho-educate themselves so as to take these conditions as serious psychological illnesses and not merely as tantrums, excessive hunger or moodiness.
Apart from this, she said that a circle of care around a patient and a willingness to seek professional care helps in case of all psychological distress.
Apart from seeking professional assistance, those suffering can help themselves by taking small steps.
Talking/sharing what you are going through with someone you trust can help. Vasunia said, “Eating disorders can lead an individual to feel very isolated and disconnected from their environment. So you need to find someone you trust.”
Remembering your strengths is another way. Engage in activities and with people who make you feel good about yourself, Vasunia added. She said that volunteering, starting a gratitude journal or going for a fun class like yoga can help in battling negative thoughts.
If you or someone you know needs help, mail firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).