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Eating disorders 101
Eating disorders are psychiatric illnesses in which eating behavior is seriously disturbed and harmful behaviors take control of the person's life.
There are three main types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is marked by self-starvation and drastic weight loss. Bulimia nervosa involves a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Binge-eating disorder involves frequent periods of excessive eating—but not purging.
Anyone, including men, can have an eating disorder. However, young women are especially vulnerable, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. These disorders primarily develop in those in their teens and 20s, but they can also develop in children and the elderly.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 30 million Americans have an eating disorder.
A variety of factors can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Low self-esteem, troubled family relationships and cultural glorification of thinness are some examples. Researchers are also studying other possible causes, such as genetics. Typically, however, people with eating disorders use food and the control of food as a way to cope with feelings or situations that may seem overwhelming. They feel out of control, and dieting, bingeing and purging become misguided attempts to take charge.
A person with an eating disorder will focus on weight loss, dieting and control of food. She or he may exercise excessively and withdraw from friends and activities. Some signs of specific disorders include:
- Anorexia: Significant weight loss; fear of becoming fat; peculiar food habits and rituals.
- Bulimia: Evidence of binge eating and purging behaviors, such as missing food, smells of vomiting, or laxative and diuretic packaging; swollen cheeks or jaw and stained teeth; complex lifestyle schedules that allow for binge-and-purge sessions.
The self-starvation of anorexia and the bingeing and purging of bulimia can result in serious medical problems that may lead to death, most commonly from heart and kidney trouble. An estimated 4% to 5% of people with serious eating disorders die, according to ANAD.
Eating disorders are treatable, but the person with the disorder must decide for herself or himself to seek treatment, and the process can be difficult and lengthy. The chances of success are better if the eating disorder is diagnosed and treated early by both medical and mental health professionals. A treatment plan may include hospitalization, attaining a healthy weight, medication, dental work, counseling and support groups.
To learn more about eating disorders, visit our Eating Disorders health topic center. You can also get more information at these websites:
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
- The National Eating Disorders Association.