What You Need to Know About Eating Disorders

Occurrence, Who Gets Them, Types and Treatments

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Excessive dieting to the extent that you lose more weight than is healthy is seen by some as trendy or even necessary to be slim and fashionable. From belly-baring fashions to gaunt, skeletal runway models, people have taken the idea that "thin is in" to new extremes in the new millennium.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are conditions that involve extreme food and weight issues and cause serious emotional and physical distress.

Eating disorders represent a preoccupation with body weight, food intake, shape and/or diet. Typically, if you have an eating disorder, you'll have unhealthy eating behavior. This may include extreme and unhealthy reduction of the amount of food you eat, or you may severely overeat.You likely also feel bad about your eating habits, body shape, weight, or all three.

Why Do They Occur?

There are many factors that affect how and why we eat, including appetite, food availability, family, friends, cultural practices and your own efforts to control your eating. Mental health professionals still don't know exactly why some people move beyond normal eating behavior. We do know that this is a complex process and there are usually a variety of factors involved, including genetics, environment, potential peer pressure and emotional health.

We also know that eating disorders are not due to a failure of will or behavior.

They are, on the other hand, real medical illnesses that are diagnosable and treatable.

Who Gets Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, weight, gender, or race. We tend to associate them with women, and it's true that females are much more likely than males to develop eating disorders, but men can and do deal with them as well.

 The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 20 people will deal with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. 

Most Common Eating Disorders

The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia is characterized by starving oneself and an obsession with weight loss.The person may also engage in extreme exercise or binging and purging behaviors. Anorexia sufferers are very thin and the physical toll of their behavior can become extreme and even lead to death.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by eating large amounts of food at once and then either vomiting, excessively exercising or taking a laxative to purge oneself of the calories from the food. Bulimia sufferers are often of average weight or even a little overweight. This disorder also takes a physical toll and can also lead to death.

Binge-eating disorder is when a person loses control and engages in eating a large amount of food over a short period of time, even when they are not hungry or may even be full. This behavior causes serious mental distress and feelings of guilt, shame and disgust. 

When Do They Start?

Most often, eating disorders develop during the teenage years or early adulthood.

More and more, there are reports of eating disorders developing even in elementary school-age children and adults.

Effect on Health

Eating disorders frequently show up alongside other mental health issues, such as depression, alcohol or drug abuse and anxiety disorders. People who suffer from eating disorders also risk serious, and sometimes fatal, health complications, including serious heart conditions and kidney failure. This is why it's particularly important for eating disorders to be recognized, diagnosed and treated.


There is help for eating disorders. The specific treatment plan will depend on the individual, as well as the specific diagnosed eating disorder, but in general, psychotherapy, medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, and/or nutritional counseling are effective ways to manage symptoms.

If you think you may have an eating disorder, be sure to see your physician as soon as possible to get help. The earlier you can get treatment, the better your recovery will be.


National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions. 2006 NIH Publication No. 01-4901.