Eating disorders are severe, potentially life-threatening conditions that involve preoccupations with food, body weight or shape. People with these conditions often engage in restrictive eating behaviors, extreme dieting, binge eating, purging through vomiting or laxative misuse and compulsive exercise. These disorders typically develop in adolescence and young adulthood. They are most common in females, but they can affect people of any gender or age.
People with anorexia nervosa have a distorted body image and an extreme fear of gaining weight. They restrict their food intake to dangerously low levels and may even starve themselves. They may also have episodes of bulimia, in which they eat large amounts of food quickly and then try to rid themselves of the extra calories by vomiting or using laxatives. Unlike anorexia, people with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) don’t have a distorted body image or an extreme fear of gaining weight. However, they do limit their food to the point that they don’t get enough nutrients.
A person’s risk of developing an eating disorder can be increased by a family history of the condition or a personal experience with depression or anxiety. But many people with an eating disorder don’t have a family history of the illness, and most cases are sporadic. Some experts believe that genetics, personality and social pressure to be thin are all factors that contribute to an eating disorder.
Teenagers can be especially vulnerable to an eating disorder because of hormonal changes during puberty and the pressure to look good or lose weight. But eating disorders can occur at any age and in any racial or ethnic group.
People who live in cultures that value appearance as a sign of social status are more likely to have an eating disorder. This includes athletes, actors and dancers who are often pressured to be thin. People in these communities also tend to be more sensitive to weight-related teasing and have a temperament that makes them more likely to start a diet that becomes an eating disorder.
The three most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. People with anorexia nervosa restrict their food and exercise excessively to a dangerously low weight. They may be depressed or anxious and have a distorted view of their body size and shape. They may also have a poor memory and a dry mouth.
Binge-eating disorder involves recurrent episodes of eating unusually large quantities of food and is the most common eating disorder. Unlike anorexia, people who have binge-eating disorder don’t engage in purging or other compensatory behaviors.
Some people with a binge-eating disorder are overweight or obese, but they still have recurrent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food. This type of binge-eating is usually accompanied by feelings of lack of control and shame or guilt. It can be difficult for a person who is battling binge-eating disorder to seek treatment. They may not think they have a problem and prefer to keep it a secret. But family members and friends can help by urging them to talk to their doctor.