Consult a Doctor

Eating Disorders: When to See a Doctor

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Health Writer | Medical Researcher
eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious psychological conditions that result in unhealthy and abnormal eating patterns that negatively affect your health, emotions, and ability to function in important areas of life. 

Distorted body image, obsession with body weight, body shape and food are the leading cause of these unhealthy and dangerous eating behaviours.

These behaviours can have a significant impact on your body’s ability to get proper nourishment. Eating disorders can harm the different organs in the body – heart, pancreas, kidney, bones, teeth and mouth, and lead to other diseases. It may even lead to death if left untreated.

If you think that you or your loved one has an eating disorder, then it is imperative for you to seek medical help as soon as you can. Eating disorders can be fatal.

They can result in a long term medical condition caused by malnutrition or constant binge-eating. In very severe cases, they may result in multiple organ failure and death.

You may not see this as a serious issue but, the reality is that if you are not eating healthy, not getting the right nutrition in the right quantity and losing weight because of it, you are definitely headed for the hospital emergency room.

Types of Eating Disorders and their Symptoms

There are different kinds of eating disorders, and their symptoms vary based on the type. 

Anorexia nervosa

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People with anorexia nervosa have an uncanny perception of their body image. They always believe and see themselves as overweight, fat or obese even when they are skinny or dangerously underweight. This disorder is driven by the intense fear of gaining weight.

Individuals with this condition usually starve themselves or use extreme measures to lose weight, which often interferes with their health and life activities.

This eating disorder is more common in teenagers or young adult and tends to affect females more than males. Of all the mental disorders, Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate.

Most people with this disorder die either from the complications associated with starvation or suicide.

Some of the following symptoms may develop with time,

~ Being significantly underweight compared to other individuals of the same age range and height.

~ Doing everything possible to avoid weight gain and the persistent pursuit of thinness even when they are underweight

~ Mild anaemia

~ Muscle weakness and wasting

~ Lethargy, slow and lazy, or always feeling exhausted 

Serious medical complications that can be life-threatening include:

~ heart rhythm abnormalities

~ kidney problems 

~ seizures.

~ heart, brain or multiple organ failure and death.

Bulimia nervosa 

Bulimia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia nervosa have frequent on and off episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food.

Afterwards, they try to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way, such as forcing themselves to vomit, exercising excessively, fasting and using laxatives. This is because of the guilt, shame and intense fear of gaining weight from overeating.

Just like in the case of anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa are usually obsessed with their weight, body shape and may hate their body for what they believed to be flawed.

This disorder tends to develop more in teenagers and young adults and is more common in females than in males. People with bulimia nervosa may be a mildly underweight, normal weight, or overweight.

Possible symptoms that show a person may have bulimia nervosa include:

– Recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by visits to the bathroom to vomit right after meals

– Frequent and unexplained diarrhoea

– Chronic and inflamed sore throat

– Swelling of the salivary glands in the neck and cheeks

– Feeling dizzy or fainting from frequent purging and vomiting

Binge-eating disorder

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People with binge eating disorder usually eat a large amount of food at a go. Just as in bulimia nervosa, people with binge-eating disorder don’t have control over their eating.

The difference is that they do not try to redeem their eating habits by inducing vomiting, fasting, taking laxatives or exercising excessively to get rid of the excess calories. People who binge-eat may eat quickly or eat more than they planned to eat. They may continue to eat even when they are full or not hungry. 

Binge eating disorder is associated with the feeling of guilt, shame or embarrassment. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese, and they can have serious health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke and cardiovascular diseases.

Symptoms of binge eating are:

> Eating faster than normal

> Overeating or eating until uncomfortably full 

> Eating when not feeling hungry or when full

Rumination disorder

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Rumination disorder involves frequent and constant regurgitation of food after eating.  People with this disorder always voluntarily bring up the food they have swallowed and re-chew, re-swallow or spit it out. This disorder is not due to a medical or gastrointestinal problem like reflux.

It can occur in infants, children, adolescents, or adults, but it is more common in infants or people with a mental disability.

This disorder is most likely to develop in babies when they are 3 – 12 months of age and disappears on its own. To resolve this condition in adults and children, therapy is often required.

This disorder may result in malnutrition and weight loss if they always spit the food out or if the person eats a relatively little amount of food to prevent the behaviour. 

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

People with this disorder are always picky when it comes to food and do not meet their minimum daily nutrition requirements because of lack of interest in food or loss of appetite.

People with this disorder are not too worried about their weight and shape, so they do not avoid food because of the fear of gaining weight or lack of food, dieting or fasting.

This disorder can result in 

~ Significant weight loss or failure to gain weight in children 

~ Nutritional deficiencies that can cause health problems

~ The need to rely on nutritional supplements or a feeding tube to gain an adequate amount of nutrition.

Food avoidance or restriction disorder can start at any age, but it commonly starts from infancy or early childhood and may continue till adulthood. 


This is an eating disorder in which a person repeatedly consumes things that are not food. People with pica, in general, do not dislike food but crave and eat things like chalk, soap, paper, charcoal, dirt, clay, soap, paint chips, tiles, cloth, glue, cigarette ashes, hair, ice and stones. 

Pica can occur in people of any age group, but it is more commonly observed in children, pregnant mothers and people with mental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder.

Children under the age of 2 are not diagnosed with pica because it is natural for children of their age to put small objects into their mouth.

Behaviour is considered to be pica when the item consumed is not a normal part of the person’s culture or religion, and it is not socially accepted as a practice among the person’s peers.  

Symptoms of pica eating disorder are related to the non-food substance consumed, and it includes:

~ Stomach pain/upset

~ Constipation or diarrhoea

~ Blood in the stool may be caused by an ulcer as a result of eating non-food items

Causes and factors that increase the risk of eating disorders

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Source: Canva

There is no known cause of eating disorders. But researchers and specialist on eating disorders believed that the combination of any of the following factors could cause or increase the risk of developing an eating disorder: 

– Family history: Eating disorders are more likely to occur in individuals who have family members with eating disorders, depression and drug abuse.

– Being criticised for one’s body weight, shape or eating habit

– Being worried about adding weight because of the nature of your job, for example, models, actors/actress, athletes or ballet dancers.

– Having low self-esteem, a perfectionist, or an obsessive personality.

– Stress: Most people, when under a lot of stress, maybe due to pressure at work, at home or in relationships, tend to either binge eat or starve depending on the individual. This may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

How to Prevent Eating Disorders

Although there are no strategies known to certainly help in preventing eating disorders, here are some things you can do or avoid to help yourself, your child or a loved one to develop healthy-eating habit:

~ Avoid restrictive dieting: this will make you more preoccupied or obsessed about what to eat and what not to eat. Instead, focus on eating nutritious food that will make your body strong and healthy. Listen to your body, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.

~ Love your body: worrying about your body size and shape can result in low self-esteem and insecurity, resulting in eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. But loving your body can help you to take care of your body by living and eating healthy.

~ Stop comparing yourself to other people or pictures, especially those you see on social media platforms; most of those pictures are either edited or photoshopped.

~ Avoid discussions, jokes that have to do with you or your friends’ appearance; instead, focus on things or activities that make you happy.

~ Avoid dieting around your kids. Your eating habits may influence your children’s relationships with food.

~ Dine together with your kids. While at that, encourage them to eat a balanced diet in the right portion and the pitfalls of dieting.

~ Talk to your child. Help them understand that body size and shape varies. Encourage them to love their body by reinforcing a healthy body image in them. Also, help them to understand that being skinny or having a six-pack are not the major things that make one beautiful, happy or more accomplished in life.

When to see a doctor

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Once you notice or think that you have an eating disorder or are worried about your eating habit or body image, it is very important that you Speak to your Doctor. The same applies to your kids or any of your loved ones who may be showing signs of an eating disorder.  Encourage the person toConsult a Doctor. And if it is a kid, take the child to see a doctor for a thorough check-up. Seeking treatments as early as possible boosts your chance of recovering fully.

Treatment for eating disorders

The treatment and recovery from eating disorders may take time. The treatment depends on the type of eating disorder, but it usually includes

– Therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy for the individual, group therapy and a family-based therapy

– Regular checks and treatments 

– Medications: Although medication cannot cure an eating disorder, antidepressants, antipsychotics, or anti-anxiety medication may help treat depression and anxiety, which are associated with an eating disorder.

– Nutritional help: dieticians experienced in treating an eating disorder will prepare a meal plan tailored for your condition. This will help you to get the right nutrient and get back on the right body weight.


Eating disorders are mental health conditions that can practically take over one’s life. It can develop in people of any age, gender or race. If left untreated, it can have severe consequence. If you have an eating disorder or have a loved one who does, seek immediate medical help from your doctor or a specialist in eating disorders.

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Blessing Amaka

Ms. Blessing is a health writer and freelance researcher with special interest in healthcare and lifestyle improvements.

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