Eating Disorders

Learn About Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is an illness that involves a disturbed relationship to food. This can range from restricting to bingeing, that is, consuming physiologically inadequate amounts of food to eating much more than the body requires for good health. Both extremes can have serious medical consequences, even death; and they are associated with distress (especially related to body weight or shape) or impairment. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Many people with anorexia nervosa see themselves through a distorted body image as overweight, even though clearly underweight. Eating, food, and weight control become obsessions. People with anorexia nervosa typically weigh themselves repeatedly, portion food carefully, and eat very small quantities of only certain foods. Some people with anorexia nervosa may also engage in binge-eating followed by extreme dieting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and misuse of laxatives, diuretics (“water pills”), or enemas.

Patients with bulimia nervosa eat unusually large amounts of food, and feel a lack of control over their eating. This binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating, such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain normal weight, while some are slightly overweight. But like people with anorexia nervosa, they often fear gaining weight, want desperately to lose weight, and are intensely unhappy with their body size and shape. Usually, bulimic behavior is done secretly because it is often accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame. The binge-eating and purging cycle happens anywhere from several times a week to many times a day.

With binge-eating disorder, a person loses control over eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are over-weight, even obese. People with binge-eating disorder also experience guilt, shame, and distress about their binge-eating, which can lead to more binge-eating. Binge-eating disorder is the most common diagnosis among people who seek treatment.

Eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood or later in life. Like females who have eating disorders, males also have a distorted sense of body image. Although males with eating disorders exhibit the same signs and symptoms as females, they are less likely to be diagnosed. Men and boys are more likely to use steroids or other dangerous drugs to increase muscle mass than females.

Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses. They frequently coexist with other illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders. Some symptoms can become life-threatening if a person does not receive treatment. People with anorexia nervosa are 18 times more likely to die early compared with people of similar age in the general population. Adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment. Specific forms of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, and medication are effective for many eating disorders. Some patients may also need to be hospitalized to treat problems caused by malnutrition or to ensure they eat enough if they are very underweight.

Adapted from:
NIH - Eating Disorders

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