Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions that affect up to 5% of the population. They most commonly occur in adolescence and young adulthood. They are most common in girls and women, but boys and men also experience them. A variety of factors increase an individual’s risk for developing an eating disorder. These include a family history of depression or eating disorder, poor body image and a preoccupation with food or weight. A person’s lifestyle and social pressures can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. People with these disorders have a preoccupation with weight and body size, engage in extreme dieting or other methods of losing weight and eat very little. They may purge by vomiting, use laxatives or exercise excessively. People with these conditions are at high risk for medical complications such as heart problems, kidney damage and stomach or intestinal rupture.
Research suggests that genetic factors may play a role in the development of an eating disorder. A history of family members with an eating disorder may increase a person’s risk, but researchers are not sure how or why genes contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Certain individuals have traits that increase their chances of developing an eating disorder, such as anxiety, fear and perfectionism. Other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and low self-esteem can also increase the chance of developing an eating disorder.
Stressors such as transitioning to college, starting a new job, or a relationship problem can also lead to an eating disorder. Having a close friend or family member with an eating disorder can also make a person more likely to develop one. People who have been bullied for their weight or who have experienced sexual abuse are at higher risk for an eating disorder than those who have not.
Severe weight loss and other behaviors associated with an eating disorder are more likely in people who live near or below the poverty line. Eating disorders can also be more serious in minors and older adults.
Often, people who are experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis, but they can still have serious health concerns. Getting treatment is important for a full recovery. Typically, treatment involves psychotherapy (talk therapy), with the help of a psychologist. This includes a technique called dialectical behavior therapy, which helps the person learn to manage emotions and change thinking patterns that are linked to eating disorder behaviors. Other types of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy and family or group psychotherapy. People with eating disorders also may be treated with medications to promote normal growth and development. Some doctors may recommend nutritional rehabilitation to help return healthy eating habits. Some hospitals offer specialty treatment for eating disorders. Check with your doctor for the best options in your area. Getting prompt, effective treatment is the best way to recover from an eating disorder.