What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a category of illnesses that involve extreme behaviors surrounding eating and body weight. Three common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating. Anorexia involves being severely underweight with a refusal to stay at a healthy body weight, an obsessive fear of gaining weight, extremely limiting food intake, and a distorted view of one’s body image. Bulimia involves recurrent extreme overeating (binging), which can result in shame or guilt. To lessen these feelings, people may try to undo their overeating (self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, or excessive exercise). Binge-eating disorder is similar to bulimia in that it involves excessive eating, but without any “undoing” behaviors after the over eating occurs. These disorders typically first appear during adolescence and left untreated can quickly become out of control. As eating disorders progress they often result in devastating effects on physical and mental health and in some cases can end in death. Eating disorders can also be a source of extraordinary stress for families, as they may feel helpless as their loved one struggle with these serious and often life-threatening issues. Thankfully, with the right treatment people can overcome an eating disorder and regain control of themselves and their lives.

How Prevalent Are Eating Disorders?

It is estimated that 10 million females and 1 million males have an eating disorder. Four out of ten individuals have personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has such a disorder. 86 percent of people with eating disorders report that their eating disorder started before age 20.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There is no single agreed upon cause for eating disorders. Although concerns about weight and body shape play a role in all eating disorders, the actual cause of these disorders appear to result from many factors. It is believed that genetic factors, family pressure, cultural influence (TV and media), personality, and emotional factors impact the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

How Do I Know if I Need Help?

In the beginning, people may choose to restrict their diets or to purge to lose weight, but they continue these behaviors because it becomes an addictive behavior that they can no longer control without help. If parents are concerned due to changes in their child’s eating behaviors they should not hesitate to seek help because eating disorders are much easier to treat with early interventions. If food or an obsession with weight is raising concerns people should seek help, because early prevention may prevent an eating disorder from emerging.

What Are Some of the Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can present in a variety of ways. The major sign of an eating disorder is a change in eating behavior and an obsession with weight or body image. This change may be avoiding food, hoarding food, or immediately leaving the table after eating to purge. Families may notice social withdrawal, moodiness, and that a person begins to wear baggy clothes to hide weight loss.

Getting the Help You Need

Treatment includes counseling, nutrition education and sometimes medication is helpful. Counseling may help the person identify negative thinking, change how they feel about themselves, better relate to others, and manage depression and anxiety that often underlie eating disorders. Family therapy may aid parents in helping their child overcome an eating disorder. You need a professional that has the expertise to help you regain control.


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