Eating disorders are a group of illnesses characterized by irregular eating habits, severe stress or concerns about your body image and too little or too much food intake.
What do eating disorders look like?
There are three types of eating disorders. All can cause severe medical problems and involve food and weight issues, but symptoms and behaviors vary. Eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa. People with anorexia become obsessive about weight loss to the point of denying hunger and starvation. They may also binge and purge or exercise to the point of exhaustion to lose weight or burn calories. A lack of food intake and nutrition will eventually cause a person to be very thin, which can cause many medical issues while the body attempts to conserve energy. These can include irregular periods or loss of menstruation, constipation and stomach issues, irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, dehydration and difficulty sleeping.
- Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a lack of control while eating a large amount of food in a short period of time (binging), then trying to rid the food from the body by vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively (purging). This cycle can make a person feel out of control and can negatively affect many aspects of emotional and physical health. A person may self-isolate or feel shame about eating. Binging and purging can also harm the digestive system and frequent vomiting can damage teeth and cause acid reflux. A person who purges excessively can become severely dehydrated, which can lead to irregular heartbeat, heart failure or death.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Similar to bulimia, people with BED feel a lack of control while eating and will eat large amounts of food in short periods of time, even if they feel full. However, people with BED will not purge after binging. Feeling a lack of control over eating habits can make someone with BED feel embarrassed, depressed or guilty about their behavior.
What causes an eating disorder?
People can develop eating disorders for many reasons, and most experts believe they are an attempt to cope with overwhelming feelings and emotions by controlling food intake and weight. Causes can include:
- Genetics. People with immediate family who have an eating disorder seem to be more likely to develop one, which suggests they may have a genetic link.
- Environment. Societal pressures for people, including an emphasis on thinness or muscle building, may cause a person to feel they must meet unrealistic body image expectations.
- Peer pressure. Especially in young people, comments, bullying or ridicule about weight or eating habits can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
- Emotional health. Perfectionism, impulsive behavior and difficult relationships can lower a person’s self-esteem and damage their emotional wellbeing, making them vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
How do I know if I have an eating disorder?
If you have noticed symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or BED in your life, reach out to your doctor. They can determine your diagnosis and help you get connected to treatment options. Early diagnosis is important for a successful recovery.
How are eating disorders treated?
A treatment plan for an eating disorder will vary depending on symptoms. A treatment plan might include:
- Medication, to treat usual co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression.
- Nutritional counseling
- Weight restoration monitoring