Eating disorders involve an extreme preoccupation with food, weight and body shape. They cause severe disturbances in eating behaviors and may lead to malnutrition, heart and digestive problems and can be life threatening. They are complex illnesses that most experts believe stem from a combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (also known as ARFID). Other specified feeding and eating disorders can also occur. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders are more commonly seen in women but can affect people of all ages and genders. Generally, eating disorders develop in adolescence or early adulthood but can happen at any age.
Preoccupation with food, weight and body shape is a major symptom of all eating disorders. Other symptoms include:
Binge eating disorder involves recurrent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food with a lack of control. The person feels unable to stop eating even when they are full. Unlike bulimia, the binges are not followed by purging or excessive exercise. People with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese and experience feelings of shame, disgust and guilt about their behavior.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (often referred to as ARFID) occurs mostly in infants and children but can also affect older children, teenagers and adults. ARFID is characterized by an extremely limited diet that does not meet minimum daily nutritional requirements. People with ARFID may refuse foods based on their texture, appearance, smell or taste or because of an underlying medical condition such as gastrointestinal problems or fear of choking. ARFID can be a complication of other eating disorders and is sometimes used as a stand-alone diagnosis in very young children who are refusing food for health reasons.
Other Specific Feeding and Eating Disorders may be caused by conditions such as gastrointestinal reflux, celiac disease or neurological disorders like cerebellar ataxia. Other conditions such as bulimia, obesity and anorexia can be associated with depression or anxiety. It is important to understand that an eating disorder may be a sign of an underlying mental illness or other physical problem such as an injury, thyroid disease, gastroenterological problems or neurological disorders like stroke or Parkinson’s Disease.
People who have an eating disorder are at high risk of developing other psychiatric conditions including mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. ARFID can also increase the risk of physical complications such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
Family members play a significant role in helping to prevent and treat eating disorders. Family members can be a source of support and encouragement in developing healthy eating habits, avoiding dieting or extreme behaviors and in seeking treatment for an eating disorder. They can also help challenge the unrealistic beauty ideals that contribute to the development of eating disorders. In addition, they can help reduce the stigma against people who are overweight and encourage more acceptance of body diversity.