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About Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is marked by extremes. It is present when a person experiences severe disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme reduction of food intake or extreme overeating, or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape.

A person with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food than usual, but at some point, the urge to eat less or more spirals out of control. Eating disorders are very complex, and despite scientific research to understand them, the biological, behavioral and social underpinnings of these illnesses remain elusive.

The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A third category is "eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS)," which includes several variations of eating disorders. Most of these disorders are similar to anorexia or bulimia but with slightly different characteristics. Binge-eating disorder, which has received increasing research and media attention in recent years, is one type of EDNOS.

Eating disorders frequently appear during adolescence or young adulthood, but some reports indicate that they can develop during childhood or later in adulthood. Women and girls are much more likely than males to develop an eating disorder. Men and boys account for an estimated 5 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia and an estimated 35 percent of those with binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses with complex underlying psychological and biological causes. They frequently co-exist with other psychiatric disorders such as depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders. People with eating disorders also can suffer from numerous other physical health complications, such as heart conditions or kidney failure, which can lead to death.

All Information is from Eating Disorder a publication of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a relentless pursuit of thinness and an unwillingness to maintain a healthy body weight. Those with the disorder have a distortion of body image, often seeing themselves as overweight, even if starved. The main features of the disease are the inability to maintain a normal body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, obsession with food, and a distorted view of one’s own body. These attitudes and behaviors can be seen with or without purging behaviors (self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse or over-exercising). With both physical and psychological consequences, it is important that anorexia nervosa be treated by a multidisciplinary medical team.

People with anorexia often have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and use an obsessive control of their own diet and weight as a method of controlling their surroundings and their emotions.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Body weight less than 85% of ideal or BMI of less than 17.5
  • Absent or irregular menstrual periods
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Distorted body image
  • Unusual eating behaviors such as pace, or substitutive behaviors to replace eating (gum chewing, etc)
  • Compulsive or excessive exercise
  • Lanugo—a fine growth of hair on the face/chest
  • Brittle hair or nails or hair loss
  • Yellow skin color
  • Bradycardia—slow heart rate (less than 60 beats per minute)
  • Dizziness or fainting after standing
  • Depression and/or social isolation

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over eating, followed by behaviors that compensate for the binge, such as purging, fasting or excessive exercise. Like Anorexia, those with Bulimia may have a distortion of body image or fear of weight gain. With both physical and psychological consequences, it is important that bulimia nervosa be treated by a multidisciplinary medical team.

People with bulimia often have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and use binging and purging behaviors as a way to cope with these issues.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating
  • Self induced vomiting, laxative, diuretic or diet pill use
  • Skipping meals and overeating at others
  • Secretive behavior around food and eating
  • Compulsive or excessive exercise
  • Obsession with food and activities and information related to food (grocery shopping, baking, cookbooks and magazines)
  • Mouth, teeth, gum and throat problems (cavities, ulcers, disease)
  • GERD (acid reflux)
  • Constipation/diarrhea
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Decreased ability to focus/concentrate
  • Depression or mood swings

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