Understanding Eating Disorders: Australia’s Growing Concern

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Eating disorders have become a growing concern in Australia over the past few decades. According to the Butterfly Foundation, around one million Australians live with an eating disorder, with an estimated 25% of those suffering being male. Eating disorders are mental health conditions that affect not only the individual but also their family and friends. It is essential to understand eating disorders to prevent and treat them effectively.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that cause disordered eating habits. They are usually driven by distorted body image, fear of weight gain, and low self-esteem. The number of Australians with an eating disorder is estimated to be around one million. Almost a third (31.6%) of Australian adolescents engage in disordered eating behaviours in any given year. The most common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to see themselves as overweight, even when they are underweight. They have a fear of gaining weight, and their diet is severely restricted, leading to excessive weight loss.

Australian adolescents are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at a higher rate than adults, and although anorexia can affect all genders, it is most commonly found in women and girls. People with anorexia will often restrict their energy intake, leading to low body weight and sometimes malnutrition, which can have serious medical complications. Young people living with anorexia often fear weight gain, restrict food or liquids, have a disturbed body image, exercise too often, and dislike eating in front of people. Avoiding food groups, eating smaller portions, excessively dieting, and appearing distressed at mealtimes are some of the early signs of anorexia that parents notice.

Anorexia has one of the highest rates of mortality across all psychiatric conditions. Despite this, given the right treatments and resources, young people can make a full recovery.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by purging through vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative use. Individuals with bulimia nervosa usually maintain a normal weight, making it harder to identify the disorder.

People with bulimia engage in secretive binge-eating episodes. It is often described as an unpleasant experience where individuals feel out of control and often ‘not really there’ while eating food in large quantities. Following a binge, individuals with bulimia will then engage in compensatory behaviours, also called purging behaviours, in an attempt to remove the excess calories they have just consumed and prevent weight gain.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge eating disorder is characterised by consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, followed by guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Individuals with binge eating disorder are usually overweight, although that is not always a characteristic of the disorder.

BED is the most common eating disorder in Australia. Over 5% of Australian young adults and adolescents engage in binge eating, although not all of them have a diagnosis of binge eating disorder. In Australia, 47% of all people with an eating disorder have BED – over twice as many that are diagnosed with bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa combined.

People with BED experience a similar feeling as those with bulimia during a binge episode; however, they do not engage in compensatory behaviours. Mental health is often affected by the stress, discomfort and shame of the behaviour and the stigma of seeming lazy, glutinous or lacking self-control.

Other Eating Disorders

Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder is a diagnosis given to individuals who show signs of an eating disorder and engage in disordered eating behaviours that significantly impact the individual’s life but do not meet the diagnostic criteria for any specific disorder.

What Are the Causes of Eating Disorders?

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, but there are several risk factors that may contribute to their development. These risk factors include genetics, environmental factors, societal pressures, and psychological factors.

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders

Research has shown that genetics plays a significant role in the development of eating disorders. Young people with a family history of eating disorders are more likely to develop the condition themselves. This is likely due to both genetic factors and upbringing. Growing up in an environment where your primary caregivers have an unhealthy relationship with food can lead to mirroring of these behaviours and the development of certain beliefs and thought patterns about body shape, calorie restriction and weight loss.

Environmental factors, such as culture, social media, and peer pressure, are likely to contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Particularly during adolescence, and even more so with the prevalence of social media, young people are bombarded with imagery and messaging about the ideal body. The pressure to conform to a particular body image can lead to body dissatisfaction, body image issues, low self-esteem, and disordered eating habits.

Societal pressure to be thin is another risk factor for the development of eating disorders. The media often portrays a thin body as the ideal body type, leading individuals to strive for an unrealistic body image.

Psychological factors, such as anxiety, trauma, depression, and low self-esteem, may also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders may use food as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional distress.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders can be challenging to identify, as individuals may hide their disordered eating habits. Some eating disorders, such as BED, are also less understood and often misdiagnosed. Some symptoms do overlap, though many can be individual to a particular eating disorder. However, there are several signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of an eating disorder. These include:

  • Severe weight loss or gain
  • Preoccupation with weight and body shape
  • Excessive exercise
  • Binge eating or purging behaviours
  • Distorted body image
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Social withdrawal
  • Denial of hunger or refusal to eat
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in females
  • Weakness and fatigue

It is important to seek professional help if any of these signs and symptoms are present. Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice or a phase. They can have a profoundly negative impact on health, and recovery is most effective when an eating disorder is identified early.

What Is the Treatment for Eating Disorders?

Treatment for eating disorders usually involves a combination of medical, psychological, and nutritional support. The goal of treatment is to help individuals regain a healthy relationship with food, improve their mental health, and prevent relapse.

Medical treatment may involve hospitalisation or medication to manage any physical complications of the disorder. Inpatient treatment options are generally best for those in the acute stage as it allows constant monitoring of an individual’s vital signs, ensuring the right treatment to keep them healthy.

Psychological treatments can help individuals identify and change their negative thoughts and behaviours surrounding food. A mental health professional will work with you to identify the underlying cause of your disordered eating behaviours, as well as identify any co-occurring mental health conditions. Common treatments include:

  • Family-based treatment (FBT)
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
  • Internal family systems model (IFS)
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
  • Somatic therapy

Australia Eating Disorder Treatment

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions, that have a profound social, economic and psychological effect on individuals and communities, yet in Australia, they are underdiagnosed and undertreated. Less than one in four people with an eating disorder seek professional help in Australia, with stigma and shame the most frequently cited barriers to seeking support.

Despite the rising prevalence of disordered eating, the increased need for treatment and the often lethal consequence of these disorders, one in four people in Australia view eating disorders as a choice and a sign of weakness.

Treatment at The Wave Clinic

At The Wave Clinic, we know that eating disorders are legitimate and incredibly challenging mental health conditions. There is no shame in seeking support, only strength. If you or someone you care about is ready to begin eating disorder recovery, The Wave Clinic is here to support you.

We offer specialised treatment programmes for young people living with eating disorders, and every member of The Wave’s treatment team is trained in the care and management of eating disorders.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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