Eating Disorders and Mental Health: An Overview

While many Canadians see the winter as a time to make healthy changes to their diet and lifestyle, for others, a challenging relationship with food can turn into eating disorders that can negatively affect their life and health.
Eating disorders

Currently, approximately 1 million Canadians are diagnosed with an eating disorder. While many others continue to go undiagnosed and untreated. Eating disorders affect both men and women and boys and girls. However, females experience these disorders more frequently due to brain activity that increases the chance of a negative body image.

Most people do not realize that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness after opioid abuse. Among those with anorexia nervosa (AN), cardiac disease is the leading cause of death followed by suicide, accounting for approximately 10-15% of deaths.

Common Forms of Eating Disorders 

The most common eating disorders among Canadians are Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Avoidance Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED):  

Anorexia Nervosa (AN) 

People with AN engage in self-starvation. This often results in low body weight for height and age (as well as a body mass index or BMI of less than 18.5 for adults). Some people with AN binge eat and then purge through either vomiting or laxative misuse. Fear of weight gain of any amount often drives this behaviour.

Over time, AN can lead to symptoms such as loss of menstrual periods, brittle hair and nails, dizziness caused by dehydration, stress fractures, bone loss, depression, anxiety and fatigue. More severe complications can include kidney problems, seizures, and heart rhythm abnormalities.  

Bulimia Nervosa (BN)

BN is described as rotating between extreme calorie restriction and binge eating (often to the point of pain and nausea). These binges are often followed by compensatory behaviours to prevent weight gain. These behaviours may include purging through vomiting, laxative misuse, or excessive exercise.  

Those with BN may be anywhere between slightly underweight and obese. Note that those who are very underweight are considered to have AN rather than BN.  

Some symptoms of BN can include chronic sore throat, dental decay, and heartburn. BN can also lead to fatal conditions such as esophageal tears, cardiac arrhythmias, and gastric rupture.  

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) 

Like those with BN, people with BED engage in binge eating. A behaviour which they often do in secret to manage feelings of shame and embarrassment. Unlike those with BN, however, those with BED do not engage in compensatory behaviours such as purging.

BED is a chronic condition which can lead to serious health outcomes such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) 

ARFID is a form of severe picky eating in which the individual fails to get the nutrients they need. It can be characterized by low appetite, avoidance of certain foods based on look, texture, smell, etc. or anxiety about potential negative outcomes of eating, such as choking, nausea, food poisoning, allergic reactions etc. 

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) 

OSFED is a type of eating disorder in which the behaviour is enough to cause mental distress, but does not meet the diagnostic threshold (such as the frequency of binges) or weight threshold (such as that for AN) of other eating disorders.

One example of OSFED would be “atypical anorexia”. Where the person’s anxiety over their weight is consistent with AN, but their BMI is above the baseline for AN.

Awareness and Advocacy 

Although eating disorders are a problem in Canada, they are treatable. In 2019, the Canadian Eating Disorders Alliance developed the National Eating Disorder Strategy. Which contains 50 suggestions and six pillars of activity, including: 

  • Prevention
  • Public Education and Awareness 
  • Treatment 
  • Caregiver Support 
  • Training  
  • Research 

As part of the awareness pillar, we will be observing Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme for this year’s campaign is Transforming the Narrative from Asks to Action. Urging people to understand the connections between eating disorders and co-occurring disorders and intersections. And to help people take action to support those affected.

Eating Disorders and Other Mental Health Diagnoses

Those with eating disorders often have co-occurring disorders. In a study conducted by NEDA, it was found that 94% of those hospitalized for eating disorders had other mental illnesses. Such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders.   

This makes the theme of this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week so crucial. And why providing effective and meaningful support to those with eating disorders must include a holistic approach. To address eating habits and any underlying and co-occurring disorders. 

Treatment and Recovery for Eating Disorders

In summary, recovery is possible! Facing an eating disorder can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. Contact your family doctor, or reach out to one of the many support groups across Canada. Or for immediate help call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre helpline.

Eli’s Place will be a rural, residential treatment program for young adults with serious mental illness. To learn more about our mission and our proven-effective model click here.

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