What are eating disorders?

     Eating disorders are serious illnesses that cause “extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues”. Contrary to what some believe, eating disorders are not simply “phases“, and can seriously impair a person physically and mentally. There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

     Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme weight loss due to under-eating, fasting, excessive dieting, or excessive exercise. People who suffer from anorexia nervosa exhibit an intense fear of gaining weight, and often believe they are overweight even when at a healthy or normal weight. People with bulimia nervosa share many of the same thoughts and fears of gaining weight, but instead exhibit a cycle of binging on large amounts of food and then purging to counteract the effects of binge-eating. Unlike anorexia nervosa, those with bulimia nervosa may be at a healthy weight or overweight. Unlike anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder is characterized by excessive eating without purging. Those who suffer from binge-eating feel a loss of control over their eating habits, and can often lead to other serious physical problems.

Eating disorders are very common; about 8 million adults in the U.S. are estimated to be suffering from eating disorders. Although eating disorders are most commonly associated with women, men can also suffer from them as well. All eating disorders are treatable through support, therapy, and careful attention to medical and psychological needs.

What are signs/symptoms of eating disorders?

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the signs and symptoms of eating disorders as:

  • Anorexia nervosa
      • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
      • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
      • Intense fear of gaining weight
      • Distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
      • Lack of menstruation among girls and women
      • Extremely restricted eating.
    • Bulimia nervosa
      • Similar to anorexia
      • Frequent, recurring episodes of eating large amounts of food
      • Feeling of no control over food consumption
      • Purging behaviors
        • Forced vomiting
        • Excessive use of laxatives or diuretics
        • Fasting
        • Excessive exercise
      • Binge-eating
        • Loss of control over eating habits
        • Eating unusually large amounts of food in short periods of time, even when not hungry
        • Feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, or depression about eating
        • Frequent dieting, with or without weight loss
      • Other symptoms that develop over time
        • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
        • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
        • Worn tooth enamel, increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
        • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
        • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
        • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
        • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals) which can lead to heart attack.

What are the risk factors for eating disorders?

  • Having family or friends who suffer from eating disorders
  • Young women (teens to early 20s) are more likely to report having an eating disorder
  • Having certain disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • Important life transitions, such as starting college or a new job
  • Dieting can cause feelings about weight and weight loss that may lead to development of an eating disorder

What are treatment options for eating disorders?

     Treatment for these disorders are often long-term, and are mainly treated through various types of therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and group therapy. The goal of treatment for eating disorders is to change the mindset surrounding food and weight in order to encourage those who suffer from eating disorders to maintain healthy thoughts and behaviors when it comes to eating and dieting. Health care professionals may also focus on weight restoration and nutrition education, as well as encourage lifestyle changes that can promote lasting mental and physical health. In some cases, medication is used to treat symptoms of other illnesses that may affect eating disorders, or to control urges in the case of binge-eating.


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