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Warring with food

Published Oct 19, 2020, 4:23 pm IST
Updated Oct 19, 2020, 4:23 pm IST
This mental health condition affects anyone but is most prevalent among young women and is marked by an obsession with food or body image
American singer–songwriter, Taylor Swift
 American singer–songwriter, Taylor Swift

In her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, American singer–songwriter, Taylor Swift reveals her relationship with food, talking about being so hungry after performances that she’d feel weak and on the verge of passing out.

Believe it or not, people can be addicted to food, a behaviour that may occur in response to emotions such as stress, sadness or anger. And as body image and self-esteem play a large role in eating disorders, it’s no surprise that many celebrities like Taylor Swift have struggled with this disorder. However, the disorder can affect anyone, not only celebrities.


Dr Nida Fatima Hazari, PhD (food and nutrition), Founder at Heal-Thy Nutrition by Nida, clarifies. “In some shape or form, we all have some idiosyncrasies around eating. Some eat a lot and some others eat when emotional, anxious, sad or happy. Yet others don’t eat at all when they are low, or because they fear weight gain. We need to worry when these issues turn into disorders,” cautions Dr Nida.

Understanding eating disorders

According to Dr Nida, eating disorders (ED), common in the western culture, are now prevalent in India too. “Societal pressure, the idea that ‘thin is beautiful’, global development, rapid changes in mind sets and influence of westernised concepts of health and beauty have all contributed to the prevalence of the disorder here,” she points out. “Research says at least 50% of patients with an ED are known to have a psychiatric comorbidity, with the most common being depression.”


Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating are some of the common eating disorders as per Dr J Anish Anand, Consultant Internal Medicine, Apollo Hospitals.

“Moreover, people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa tend to be perfectionists with low self-esteem and are extremely critical of themselves and their bodies.”


Manifestations of the disorder

Dr Anand lists out some of the eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa: It limits calories excessively or uses other methods to lose weight, such as extreme exercises; using laxatives or abnormal diet plans; or vomiting after eating.


“Efforts to reduce weight, even when underweight, can cause severe health problems,” warns Dr Anand.

Bulimia nervosa: Bulimic also restrict their eating — but they eat large amounts of food in a short time, and then try ridding themselves of the extra calories in an unhealthy manner — out of guilt, shame and intense fear of weight gain. Even bulimics may indulge in forced vomiting, exercising too much or using laxatives to get rid of the calories.


Binge-eating: Binge-eaters feel guilty, disgusted or ashamed by their behaviour and the amount of food eaten, but they don’t try to ‘compensate’ with excessive exercise or purging, as bulimics or anorexics do.


Rumination disorder: Those suffering from this disorder regurgitate food after eating, though not due to a medical condition or any of the above eating disorders. Food is brought back up into mouth, sometime even unintentionally, without nausea or gagging, and it’s re-chewed and swallowed or spat out.

“The disorder may cause malnutrition if the food is spat out,” cautions Dr Anand.


As with other mental illnesses, ED is caused by genetics and biology as well as psychological and emotional health. While some may have genes that increase their risk of developing eating problems, biological factors such as changes in brain chemicals may also cause EDs. Additionally, those with low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behaviour and troubled relationships tend to have ED.


Anorexia or bulimia, likelier among teenage girls and young women than teenage boys and young men, often develops in teens and early 20s.

Factors increasing the risk include family history; a history of anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsiveness.

Behavioural indicators of EDs

Excessive focus on healthy eating

Skipping meals; making excuses for not eating

Adopting restrictive vegetarian diets

Making one’s own meals rather than eating with family

Withdrawing from social activities

Persistent complaints about being fat


Frequent checking in the mirror for flaws in body shape

Eating large amounts of sweets or high-fat food

Use of dietary supplements, laxatives or herbal products for losing weight

Intense exercising

Calluses on knuckles from inducing vomiting

Loss of tooth enamel from repeated vomiting

Leaving during meals for using the toilet

Eating more snack or food at once than is normal

Expressing depression, disgust or guilt about eating habits

Eating secretly

Complications from EDs

The more severe or long the eating disorder, the likelier for one to experience serious complications, such as the following:


Menstrual periods cease

Osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) through calcium loss

Hair/nails become brittle

Skin dries and can take on a yellowish cast

Mild or severe anaemia; and muscles, including the heart muscle, waste away

Severe constipation

Drop in blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse rates

Internal body temperature falls, causing one to feel cold all the time

Depression and suicidal thoughts

Problems with growth

Relationship problems

Substance use disorders

Work/school issues




Some strategies to help your children develop healthy eating behaviours:

Avoid dieting in front of them.

Talk to them about the risks of unhealthy eating choices.

Cultivate and reinforce a healthy body image for yourself and others; avoid criticising your own body in front of your children.