Broadly defined, an eating disorder is an unhealthy variation from the norm in regards to a person’s eating behaviors. These behaviors can include both overeating and under-eating, and often include secondary symptoms like poor self-esteem and a distorted body image. The specific mental health disorders that are identified as eating disorders include:
Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia see themselves as overweight and even though they are not, they engage in extreme dieting behaviors. They severely limit their caloric intake and often under-nourish themselves. Individuals struggling anorexia can often become obsessed with their weight, weighing themselves repeatedly throughout the day. They may also occasionally engage in binge-eating followed by vomiting, using laxatives, or excessively exercising.
Bulimia nervosa: People with bulimia engage in both binging and purging behaviors. They will eat large quantities of food quickly, but will then use laxatives, enemas, diuretics or force themselves to vomit in order to rid themselves of the food they’ve consumed. People with bulimia often are at or slightly above a normal weight, but they experience intense anxiety about gaining weight.
Binge-eating disorder: People with binge-eating disorder feel unable to control their eating. As a result, they eat large quantities of food, but do not engage in the purging behavior of those who struggle with bulimia. Their periods of binging are often accompanied by feelings of shame and distress, thus instigating further episodes of binge eating.
Although these disorders hold a powerful and tragic grip over sufferers’ lives, these eating disorders are treatable.
A 2011 estimate cited by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests slightly more than 6 percent of people struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, people with eating disorders are also at much higher risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Eating disorders tend to also begin young, with a median age of onset of 12 to 13 years old.
Causes and Risk Factors for Eating Disorders
Scientists and clinicians agree that the causes of eating disorders are multifaceted and complex. Despite the complexity, they agree that the disorders are a result of an interplay of genetic and environmental factors, including:
Genetic: There is a genetic component of a person’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder. People who have a family member with an eating disorder are more likely to develop an eating disorder as well.
Environmental: Environment also plays a role in development of an eating disorder. Genetic vulnerability aside, people who grow up in homes with parents or siblings who are highly critical of their own or others’ bodies are more at risk, as are those whose families place a high emphasis on dieting and weight control. Peer pressure and social pressure to be thin also increase a person’s risk.
- Poor self-esteem
- Poor body image
- Family emphasis on dieting or body image
- Being female
- Family history of mental illness
- Personal history of mental illness
- Experiencing chronic stress
- Age (teenagers are more at risk for eating disorders)
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Some common signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:
- Eating very little or eating too much
- Forcing oneself to vomit
- Using laxatives, diuretics, or other purging methods
- Secretiveness around eating
- Frequently talking about one’s body
- Emaciation (extreme thinness)
- Lanugo (fine hair covering one’s body)
- Tooth decay
- Extreme changes in weight
- Loss of muscle mass
- Drop in body temperature
- Missing or cessation of periods
- Pervasive and distracting thoughts about one’s weight
- Slowed thinking
- Obsessions about one’s body weight and/or shape
- Social withdrawal
- Drastic shifts in mood
- Poor self-esteem
- Distorted body image
Effects of Eating Disorders
Should they remain untreated, eating disorders can have disastrous, even fatal, results, including:
- Fracture in relationships
- Organ damage
- Tooth decay
- Growth and developmental problems
- Occupational or academic problems
- Weakening of bones
- Cardiovascular damage
People with eating disorders often struggle with a number of co-occurring disorders, including:
- Substance use disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder