What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders occur when a person’s attitude about food, weight and body size lead to very rigid eating and exercise habits that jeopardize one’s health, happiness and safety. Eating disorders may begin as a way to lose a few pounds, but these behaviors can quickly get out of control, become obsessions and may even turn into an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are not due to failure of will or behavior; rather, they are real, treatable medical illnesses in which certain maladaptive patterns of eating take on a life of their own. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A third type, binge-eating disorder, has been suggested but has not yet been approved as a formal psychiatric diagnosis.
Many people with eating disorders experience depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and childhood sexual abuse, and may be at risk for osteoporosis and heart problems. Death rates for eating disorders are among the highest for any mental illness.
Eating disorders are on the rise and more than 90 percent of those who have them are women. No one knows exactly what causes eating disorders. However, all socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural groups are at risk.
What are some factors that can contribute to eating disorders?
feelings of lack of control in life
depression, anxiety, anger or loneliness
strong need to please others
troubled family and personal relationships
difficulty expressing emotions or feeling
history of being teased about size or weight
history of physical or sexual abuse
cultural pressures that glorify “thinness” and the perfect body
cultural norm valuing people by their appearance
possible biochemical or biological reasons
family history of eating disorders
Anorexia is essentially self-starvation, a refusal to maintain a minimum normal body weight. People with eating disorders also may engage in self-induced vomiting and abuse of laxatives, diuretics or exercise in order to control their weight. People with this disorder see themselves as overweight even though they are dangerously thin. The condition may lead them to become emaciated and, in severe cases, anorexia can be life-threatening.
Some signs and symptoms of anorexia include:
weight loss, sometimes severe
intense fear of gaining weight
distorted body image
Health consequences of anorexia nervosa:
irregular heart rhythms and heart failure
risk of suicide
menstrual changes or absence of menstruation
People suffering with bulimia follow a routine of secretive, uncontrolled eating followed by inappropriate ways of trying to rid the body of food before it is digested. This includes vomiting and /or misuse of laxatives, diet pills, water pills, excessive exercise or fasting. Because many people with bulimia “binge and purge” in secret and maintain normal or above the normal body weight, they can often hide the disorder from others.
Some signs and symptoms of bulimia include:
preoccupation with food, body weight and shape
feeling unable to control eating behavior
self-induced vomiting, using laxatives or other medications, fasting or excessive exercise
difficulty controlling impulsive behavior
Health consequences of bulimia nervosa:
damage of heart muscle
inflammation of esophagus
erosion of tooth enamel
damage to salivary glands
People with binge-eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating, with the same binge-eating symptoms as those with bulimia. The main difference is that individuals with binge-eating disorder do not purge their bodies of excess calories. Therefore, many with the disorder are overweight for their age and height. Feelings of self-disgust and shame associated with this illness can lead to binging again, creating a cycle of binge eating.
Some signs and symptoms of binge-eating include:
frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time
feeling out of control over eating behavior
feeling ashamed or disgusted by the behavior
eating when not hungry and in secret
Health consequences of binge eating disorder:
high blood pressure
What is the treatment for eating disorders?
Eating disorders are most successfully treated when diagnosed early. The longer abnormal eating behaviors persist, the more difficult they are to overcome. In some cases, long-term treatment and hospitalization is required. Presently, there is no universally accepted standard treatment for eating disorders. Ideally, an integrated approach to treatment involves medical care, psychosocial interventions, and nutritional counseling. Certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be helpful for weight maintenance and for resolving mood and anxiety symptoms associated with anorexia. People with eating disorders often do not recognize or admit that they are ill. As a result, they may strongly resist getting and staying in treatment. Family members and other trusted individuals may be helpful in ensuring that the person with an eating disorder receives needed care and rehabilitation.
What is body image?
The idealization of thinness has caused distorted body image and unrealistic measures of beauty and success. Cultural and media influences such as TV, magazines and movies reinforce the belief that women should be more concerned with their appearance than with their own ideas or achievements. Research has shown that many normal weight and even underweight girls are dissatisfied with their body and are choosing inappropriate behaviors to control their appetite and food intake.
More information about eating disorders can be obtained by contacting:
National Institute of Mental Health
The National Women’s Health Information Center, Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services