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What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a group of conditions marked by abnormal eating behaviors that can negatively impact your health, including social, psychological, and physical function.

Eating disorders are commonly associated with an obsession with food, body weight or shape, or with apprehension about eating or the repercussions of eating certain foods. Behaviors connected with eating disorders include binge eating, purging by laxative misuse or vomiting, compulsive exercise, or avoidance of certain foods or restrictive eating. These behaviors can significantly affect your body's ability to get proper nutrition and can lead to health problems, such as kidney and heart issues, digestive system problems, other diseases, and sometimes even death.

Eating disorders are more common in women. They most often develop in the teens and young adult years, even though they can develop at any age. With timely intervention, eating disorders are very treatable and can help you return to healthier eating patterns, as well as reverse serious complications associated with the eating disorder.

Types of Eating Disorders

The most common types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa: In this condition, the person believes they are overweight even when they are seriously thin and limit their food intake to the point of starvation. They usually avoid food, eat in private, and measure every bite they take. They indulge in excessive or compulsive dieting and exercising, although they are emaciated.
  • Bulimia nervosa: People eat excessive amounts of food and then purge by forceful vomiting or using laxatives. Bulimic patients indulge in excessive exercising, eat in private, and often abuse alcohol and drugs. Bulimia results in stomach ulcers that damage the food tube (esophagus), salivary glands in the cheeks, and tooth enamel.
  • Binge eating: People indulge in out-of-control eating habits, but do not purge. This is also referred to as gluttonous eating and results in overweight or obesity with increased risk of heart diseases, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Other not-so-common eating disorders include rumination disorder and restrictive/avoidant food intake disorder.

Causes of Eating Disorders

The exact cause of eating disorders is not clear. Researchers believe eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of several factors. These include psychological, behavioral, biological, genetic, and social factors. Certain things that can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing eating disorders include:

  • Poor body image
  • Dieting at a young age
  • Increased focus on looks and weight
  • Family history of eating disorder
  • Genetics
  • Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Peer pressure in the form of ridicule, bullying, or teasing because of weight or size
  • Cultural pressures such as media and pop culture that idealize a specific body type like thinness for women and muscularity for men add undue pressure on individuals to achieve unrealistic standards.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can greatly affect the health and emotions of individuals. The signs and symptoms vary, depending upon the type of disorder. In general, signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Extreme thinness
  • Excessive exercise
  • Eating an unusually large quantity of food or hardly eating
  • Eating in private to avoid embarrassment
  • Eating despite feeling full or even when not hungry
  • Frequently dieting
  • Fasting
  • Purging
  • Anemia
  • Distorted opinion of one’s own body
  • Feeling dizzy, weak, or tired
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Use of supplements for weight loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak bones
  • Irregular or slow heartbeats
  • Severe dehydration
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Diagnosis of Eating Disorders

Your physician may employ several methods to make a diagnosis of an eating disorder. These include:

  • A review of your medical history that includes questions on your eating patterns and your symptoms
  • A physical examination to check for specific signs of eating disorders
  • Urine or blood tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms
  • Psychological evaluation, which includes completing a psychological self-assessment questionnaire to know your thoughts and feelings
  • Other diagnostic tests, such as imaging (EKG or ECG) and kidney function tests to check for the presence of any other health issues triggered by eating disorders

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be managed using a variety of techniques that are tailored to individual needs. Treatment will likely involve a team of caregivers assisting you, including doctors, nurses, therapists, and nutritionists. The treatments may include:

  • Individual, family, and/or group psychotherapy: This is also referred to as talk therapy or behavioral therapy.
    • Individual therapy may involve cognitive-behavioral techniques, which help you to recognize and change unhelpful and negative thoughts. It also assists you to improve coping skills and alter behavioral patterns.
    • Family-based therapy, a type of psychotherapy in which parents are given the responsibility of feeding their children. This appears to be very successful in assisting patients to improve eating habits and moods and gain weight.
    • Group therapy is a psychological therapy that involves one or more trained psychologists (therapists) working with several people at the same time. The people in the group usually have similar concerns and meet regularly to interact with each other.
  • Nutrition counseling: A registered dietitian will help formulate a diet regimen and physicians, counselors, and nurses will assist you to eat healthy and maintain a standard weight.
  • Medications, such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants, may aid in treating some eating disorders. The medications can also assist with the anxiety and depression symptoms that often are associated with eating disorders and also control urges to purge or binge or to cope with excessive preoccupations with food and diet.
  • Medical care and monitoring, such as care for the complications that several types of eating disorders can trigger
  • Hospitalization: Your physician may recommend hospitalization for serious health cases, such as anorexia that has resulted in significant malnutrition and requires immediate medical intervention.
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  • American College of Physicians
  • Andrews Research & Education Foundation
  • American Board of Internal Medicine
  • JJM Medical College