Eating disorders are complex psychological conditions affecting more than 28 million people in the United States. They can be serious illnesses that require a professional diagnosis and treatment to help a person manage their disorder. These disorders are categorized as a psychological disease by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) (1).
There are several common characteristics that all individuals with eating disorders share. These include: Decreased Quality of Life
All individuals with an eating disorder experience a significant impact on their daily function and quality of life. Some of these impacts may be physical, such as a lack of energy or gastrointestinal problems. Others may be emotional, such as feelings of guilt or shame.
Loss of Control over Eating
All persons with eating disorders exhibit some form of loss of control over their food intake. This may take the form of excessive exercising or restricting the intake of certain foods. It may also take the form of binge eating, which is the consumption of large amounts of food in a short period of time with a sense of loss of control over it.
Binge Eating Syndrome
Individuals with bulimia nervosa typically engage in binge eating behavior that is characterized by consuming a significant amount of food in a brief period of time and experiencing feelings of distress as a result. They often feel that they cannot control their binge eating behaviors and use compensatory methods to get rid of the food, such as vomiting, fasting or laxative misuse.
The most effective treatment for bulimia nervosa involves cognitive behavioral psychotherapy to address the root causes of the binge eating episodes and to change the ways that they relate to their bodies. Other treatments such as interpersonal therapy and antidepressant medications have also been shown to be effective.
Disrupted Hormonal System
Many of the symptoms of eating disorders are linked to disruptions in hormone production. This can include changes in a person’s appetite, weight, mood and sleep patterns. Some of these disruptions can be caused by genetic factors. For example, studies have found that people with a parent with an eating disorder are more likely to develop the disorder than those without a parent with an eating disorder (3).
One of the main sociocultural contributors to eating disorders is the idealization of thin models and actresses by the media, as well as societal pressure for individuals to be skinny. These influences can make it harder for young people to feel satisfied with their body size, leading to feelings of low self-esteem and dissatisfaction.
Family Support is Key
The best way to help a person with an eating disorder is by encouraging them to seek care from a health care provider. The most common types of treatment for eating disorders include nutrition counseling and psychotherapy.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Another type of disorder is avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, which is a condition where an individual has a difficulty with certain tastes and smells when they eat. It can also affect the way a person looks at food and the amount they eat, and may lead to an over-emphasis on food and weight.