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What is an Eating Disorder?

The term “eating disorder” refers to disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to food and weight. Food consumption by people with eating disorders becomes obsessive, or conversely is severely restricted. Eating, avoiding, and coping with the consequences of food becomes a major preoccupation. Similarly, weight and body image become a dominant focus of concern and daily attention. As a consequence, positive and negative feelings about self are significantly determined by one's degree of weight loss or ability to “control” eating.

What are the Three Major Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by severe restriction of food consumption, refusal to maintain a minimally normal weight, fear of fatness, and a significant distortion in the perception of the size of the individual's body. Anorexia happens mostly in girls and young women. When a girl has anorexia, she develops such an intense fear of being fat that she almost stops eating. She becomes obsessed with food, measuring and weighing it. She only eats it in small amounts, and the exercises for hours every day to burn off the calories. She may become dangerously thin, but in her mind, she is still fat. A person with anorexia weighs at least 20% less than normal weight for their height and age.

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by excessive consumption of food during a limited period of time and inappropriate elimination of the ingested food through self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or excessive exercising. This is accompanied by a fear of fatness and frequently a distortion in the perception of the size of the individual's body. People with bulimia “binge and purge”. This means eating a huge amount of food in two hours or less (like a gallon of ice cream, then a big bag of chips, then a box of cookies), then secretly trying to get rid of it by vomiting or taking laxatives. Bulimia can be harder to notice because often, the person's weight is normal.

Binge Eating Disorder (compulsive eating) is characterized by a sense of limited or no control over what is eaten, rapid impulsive eating, and eating when not hungry. The episodes are followed by feelings of distress or guilt. These individuals are usually overweight as a result and struggle with feelings of self-disgust, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Symptoms of Eating Disordersders

Anorexia Bulimia
Drops weight to about 20% below normal Has excuses to go to the bathroom immediately
Denies feeling hungry after meals Eats huge amounts of food, but doesn't gain
Exercises excessively Uses laxatives or diuretics
Feels fat weight Withdraws from social activities
Withdraws from social activities  

Complications of Anorexia and Bulimia

Common Effects of Eating Disorders

Physical Effects Psychological Effects
Heart disease Anxiety
Hypo tension Hypertension Shame
Tooth enamel decay Sleep impairment
Salivary gland deterioration Family conflict
Ruptured esophagus Social withdrawal
Spleen deterioration Avoidance of intimacy
Stomach distention  
Bowel dysfunction  
Metabolic dysfunction  
Amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation)  

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There really is no single cause for an eating disorder. Most girls who develop anorexia do so between the ages of 11 and 14 (although it can start as early as 7). Girls with eating disorders often have low self-esteem. Sometimes they are perfectionists, who feel helpless or depressed, and they may develop the eating disorder as an unhealthy way of handling stress and anxiety. It makes them feel that they have some control over their lives if they can control what they are eating. Sometimes a girl might be more susceptible to an eating disorder if she is involved in certain sports-ballerinas, gymnasts, and ice skaters are valued for their tiny, thin bodies. Girls who model also might be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Boys on the wrestling team may develop an eating disorder in order to “make their bodies more perfect". Eating disorders also seem to run in families. Parents can increase the child's risk of developing an eating disorder if they are overly concerned about their child's looks or if they don't like their own bodies.

Why is Treatment Important?

Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating all produce debilitating psychological and physical effects, which, if left untreated, can severely limit the quality of life. Eating disorders, most commonly anorexia, can also be life threatening.

What Kinds of Treatment are Recommended for Eating Disorders?

Anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating each represent an integration of ways of thinking about self and others, mood states, and coping behaviors. Effective treatment includes initial evaluation to assess the particular relationship among these components in the individual and to tailor a treatment approach, which addresses his or her unique needs. The evaluation is built into the beginning treatment and, while occurring primarily during the first session, can continue as treatment needs dictate. The goals of treatment are to alter the roles food and eating play, change the food relationship, develop a healthy weight, and diminish the distorted body image.

Since eating disorders involve the mind as well as the body, therapy is often divided up among medical, psychiatric, and nutritional counselors. The first step is to start eating regular meals, with no skipping. The next steps involve counseling and learning about nutrition. Therapy is a necessity for people with eating disorders, and group therapy or family therapy is often the most helpful type. Parents can be the key to their child's recovery-they have an important role in reassuring their child that their body is “normal”.

Eating disorders should never be ignored-they are dangerous and can do a lot of damage to the body. In some cases, they are even life threatening. With the proper treatment and support, they can be controlled and eliminated. It may take some time before a person with an eating disorder learns to live healthily, but with help, she will be able to look in the mirror and think, “I'm not too fat-I'm just right.”