Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact your health, your emotions, and your ability to function in significant important areas of life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Most eating disorders involve focusing too much on your weight, body shape, and food, leading to dangerous eating behaviors. These behaviors can significantly impact your body’s ability to get appropriate nutrition. Eating disorders can harm the heart, digestive system, bones, and teeth and mouth, and lead to other diseases.
Eating disorders often develop in the teen and young adult years, although they can develop at other ages. With treatment, you can return to healthier eating habits and sometimes reverse serious complications caused by the eating disorder.
The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. As with other mental illnesses, there may be many causes, such as:
- Genetics and biology: Certain people may have genes that increase their risk of developing eating disorders. Biological factors, such as changes in brain chemicals, may play a role in eating disorders.
- Psychological and emotional health: People with eating disorders may have psychological and emotional problems that contribute to the disorder. They may have low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behavior, and troubled relationships
Symptoms vary, depending on the type of eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorders are the most common eating disorders. Other eating disorders include rumination disorder and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
Anorexia Nervosa, often simply called anorexia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight or shape. People with anorexia use extreme efforts to control their weight and shape, which often significantly interferes with their health and life activities.
When you have anorexia, you excessively limit calories or use other methods to lose weight, such as excessive exercise, using laxatives or diet aids, or vomiting after eating. Efforts to reduce your weight, even when underweight, can cause severe health problems, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation.
Bulimia Nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. When you have bulimia, you have episodes of bingeing and purging that involve feeling a lack of control over your eating. Many people with bulimia also restrict their eating during the day, which often leads to more binge eating and purging.
During these episodes, you typically eat a large amount of food in a short time and then try to rid yourself of the extra calories in an unhealthy way. Because of guilt, shame, and an intense fear of weight gain from overeating, you may force vomiting or you may exercise too much or use other methods, such as laxatives, to get rid of the calories.
When you have a binge-eating disorder, you regularly eat too much food (binge) and feel a lack of control over your eating. You may eat quickly or eat more food than intended, even when you’re not hungry, and you may continue eating even long after you’re uncomfortably full.
After a binge, you may feel guilty, disgusted, or ashamed by your behavior and the amount of food eaten. But you don’t try to compensate for this behavior with excessive exercise or purging, as someone with bulimia or anorexia might. Embarrassment can lead to eating alone to hide your bingeing.
A new round of bingeing usually occurs at least once a week. You may be normal weight, overweight or obese.
Rumination disorder is repeatedly and persistently regurgitating food after eating, but it’s not due to a medical condition or another eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. Food is brought back up into the mouth without nausea or gagging, and regurgitation may not be intentional. Sometimes regurgitated food is rechewed and swallowed or spit out.
The disorder may result in malnutrition if the food is spat out or if the person eats significantly less to prevent the behavior. The occurrence of rumination disorder may be more common in infancy or in people who have an intellectual disability.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
This disorder is characterized by failing to meet your minimum daily nutrition requirements because you don’t have an interest in eating; you avoid food with certain sensory characteristics, such as color, texture, smell, or taste; or you’re concerned about the consequences of eating, such as fear of choking. Food is not avoided because of the fear of gaining weight.
The disorder can result in significant weight loss or failure to gain weight in childhood, as well as nutritional deficiencies that can cause health problems.
Eating disorders are diagnosed based on signs, symptoms, and eating habits. If your doctor suspects you have an eating disorder, he or she will likely perform an exam and request tests to help pinpoint a diagnosis. You may see both your primary care provider and a mental health professional for a diagnosis.
Assessments and tests generally include:
- Physical exam: Your doctor will likely examine you to rule out other medical causes for your eating issues. He or she may also order lab tests.
- Psychological evaluation: A doctor or mental health professional will likely ask about your thoughts, feelings, and eating habits. You may also be asked to complete psychological self-assessment questionnaires.
- Other studies: Additional tests may be done to check for any complications related to your eating disorder.
Treatment of an eating disorder generally includes a team approach. The team typically includes primary care providers, mental health professionals, and dietitians, all with experience in eating disorders.
Treatment depends on your specific type of eating disorder. But in general, it typically includes nutrition education, psychotherapy, and medication. If your life is at risk, you may need immediate hospitalization.
When to See the Doctor
An eating disorder can be difficult to manage or overcome by yourself. Eating disorders can virtually take over your life. If you’re experiencing any of these problems, or if you think you may have an eating disorder, seek medical help.
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