Eating disorders are complex and can cause severe psychological, physical and nutritional problems. They are also very dangerous and can lead to life-threatening complications, including heart disease, kidney failure and sometimes death. They can affect people of all ages and from any social, ethnic or racial background. Eating disorders are defined by a distorted or uncontrollable relationship with food. These unhealthy eating habits can become a coping strategy for dealing with other difficulties in a person’s life.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, in which people engage in self-starvation and have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat; bulimia nervosa, in which people cycle between binge eating and behaviors to get rid of excess calories (e.g., vomiting or excessive exercise); and binge eating disorder (BED), in which people eat large quantities of food quickly and without control, often when they are not hungry. BED may be associated with other symptoms and behaviors, such as hiding or hoarding food, consuming large amounts of liquids or using laxatives to control weight.
Research shows that both family and environment are important risk factors for developing an eating disorder. A history of trauma, including emotional, physical or sexual abuse or a serious loss or other difficult experiences, is related to the development of an eating disorder. In addition, being surrounded by the cultural values of dieting and a skewed body image through peers, social media or TV can increase a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder.
Other risk factors include a history of depression or anxiety, or the use of medication to treat these conditions; being involved in activities that emphasize a slender appearance, such as modeling, gymnastics, dance and other sports; and having Type 1 diabetes. Up to one-fourth of women with Type 1 diabetes develop an eating disorder.
People with an eating disorder are hyper-focused on weight, food and calories and have a tangential thought process. They report feelings of sluggishness and extreme tiredness and often develop soft hair all over their bodies, called lanugo. People with eating disorders are at higher risk of developing other psychiatric disorders, such as mood and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance use disorders.
Eating disorders are a very serious medical condition, and it’s critical to seek treatment early. Left untreated, anorexia and bulimia can lead to life-threatening complications. There are a variety of treatment options, including outpatient therapy (once-a-week counseling), intensive outpatient therapy (therapy several times a week) and hospitalization. Getting the right kind of treatment will help people with eating disorders recover and live healthy lives. The earlier they get treatment, the better their chances for recovery and a full and healthy life.