• Alex Bovell

The Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

From the perspective of me, someone recovering from an eating disorder, I'm writing this post to help the mothers, sisters, partners, friends, aunties and others on what to look for when it comes to Anorexia Nervosa.

I was recently sharing a drink with my sisters who all have 2 children each. It's not often the 4 of us get together (we actually couldn't remember a time it was just us) and let loose. After a few champagnes, we started discussing all about our past, present and future... the joys, triumphs, sad times etc. It was definitely one of those deep and meaningful times I'll remember forever!

Amongst many taboo topics, we spoke about the risks teens are exposed to in this day and age as a few of my nephews and nieces are either in high school now or very soon will be. It made me think... I've been through this life-changing and defining illness, an eating disorder. I know the predispositions, the potential causes, the signs/symptoms, the sneaky little tricks and can inform people better than some pamphlet from a website could. I therefore wanted to share my views with anyone out there interested in the hope that I'm able to stop anyone slipping down this horrible path that will change their lives forever.

The sad truth is, eating disorders are extremely difficult to treat. Only 50% of Anorexia Nervosa sufferers will have a positive outcome. This statistics startles me and definitely breaks my heart. I mean once these habits are created and programmed into your everyday life, it's an ongoing battle of learning to un-do the routine, habits & rigid rules that the eating disorder thrives on. Thus, interfering early is key to halting the progression of an eating disorder and stopping these habits is absolutely essential. It's easy to stop a new trait than something you've been doing for years and the research shows this as the the outcomes are better the earlier this illness is identified.

Anorexia Nervosa

Only seeing this word would shake me to my core when I was younger. Maybe it's because I was petrified that people would find out my secret, this internal soul-destroying battle was also my safe place... my comfort zone.

Anorexia Nervosa has many definitions and I'm going to attempt my best to summarise these in an understandable way through a few dot points:

  • restriction, obsession & control of food

  • self-starvation

  • excessive weight loss

  • extreme dissatisfaction with body-shape or weight

  • often co-occurs with depression, anxiety and OCD (it's difficult to identify which comes first, perhaps the malnutrition causes inadequate neurotransmitter production resulting in mental health illnesses or maybe a pre-existing mental health illness drives the eating disorder)

A huge part of this illness that must be addressed is many people with Anorexia Nervosa use their eating disorder as a way of controlling something in their life when all other areas of their life feel chaotic and out of control. It's often a way of expressing complex/concerning emotions.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

No one wakes up and decides I'm going to starve myself and develop an eating disorder. Unfortunately, most eating disorders start off extremely innocently, and within a few weeks-months, you're in a dark hole that you can't seem to escape. I discuss this further in my own eating disorder story which can be found here.

Genetic, Social & Psychological factors all intertwine and contribute to the development of an eating disorder. You may be the happiest child strolling around the schoolyard like you own the place, standing tall, shoulders back, grin on your face. However, slowly you become influenced by various events around you, combined with your genetic innate qualities and the perfect internal environment for an eating disorder develops.

Predisposing factors are those that increase an individuals risk and make them more vulnerable to develop an eating disorder, including:

  • simply being a female increases the risk of developing an eating disorder

  • family history of eating disorders or dieting

  • perfectionist (type-A) personality

  • low self-eesteem

  • feeling like you're 'not enough'

  • feeling as though you lack control in your life

  • mental health illness - depression, anxiety, OCD

  • trouble within personal relationships

  • bullying

  • cultural pressures glorifying unnatural 'perfect' bodies

I look at these predispositions and it's extremely clear to me why I developed an eating disorder. I'm able to tick 95% of these dot points as I'm sure majority of the women reading this are able too. Ironically, I imagine an eating disorder as baking... you need these various ingredients and it's the way they interact that creates something (in this case negative).

What are the warning signs?

You're aware of the predispositions, so how do you stay alert for a loved one going down this slippery slope... what are the warning signs?

  • unnatural concern about body weight

  • dramatic weight loss

I do have a problem with suggesting everyone with an eating disorder needs to have lost a dramatic amount of weight... this isn't true. It's a generalisation and yes there are those that lose weight however, many people have serious life threatening eating disorders and maintain a 'healthy' weight according to the BMI measurement.

  • obsession with calorie counting

  • obsession with cooking/baking

It's ironic but true. I remember starving myself all day long only to cook my family dinner or bake desert and barely touch it. I was obsessed with cooking because my brain could only focus on food, it was thinking about food constantly stressing and worrying when it would receive it's next meal!

  • use of medicines, laxatives and diuretics to avoid weight gain

  • consistently avoiding meal times and situations involving food

This is where I will point out that the avoidance comes from a lack of control. Many people with an eating disorder want to control everything that enters their mouths. I would happily sit and eat something I prepared for myself in front of family members as I knew the exact ingredients, number of calories and had precisely measured out the ingredients to the last gram. However, if I was asked to eat something that I had no idea what it contained I'd freak out and spiral out of control.

  • Excessive, rigid exercise regimen despite the weather, fatigue, illness or injury

  • Withdrawal from friends and family activities

In the case of bulimia (something i'm not as familiar with) all i can say is often there's evidence of purging/vomiting behaviours that are overlooked. These include:

  • frequently going to the bathroom during/after meals

  • signs/smells of vomiting

  • presence of wrappers/packages of laxatives and diuretics

  • discolouration or staining of teeth

Thank you for taking the time to read and please share with me any thoughts, feelings or experiences you may have surrounding this topic. It's still an extremely taboo topic, and almost criticised. I feel as though depression and anxiety are slowly becoming more and more accepted yet an eating disorder is still viewed as shallow and selfish. Please understand when approaching someone you suspect may be developing an eating disorder, kindness and love is required. It's important to approach from a place of NO judgement, remember your intentions and simply listen to them. Help is important, in conjunction with your loved one seek out psychological help and a GP that you're comfortable with. I found an incredible psychologist who helped me immensely and this was simply through searching on Google for a Perth Eating Disorder Psychologist.

I'll always be more than willing to answer questions surrounding this topic.

Please feel free to email me at mlanihealth@gmail.com.

Lots of Love, Alex Xx