Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions that affect both your physical and mental health. They involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviors and distorted thoughts about food, weight, body shape and size. The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorder and pica and rumination disorder.
People with anorexia restrict their calories to the point of starvation. They often feel they are fat despite their extremely low weight and think they can never be thin enough. Anorexia usually develops during the teenage or early adult years but can occur at any age. People with anorexia can have problems with heart, kidneys and brain function.
Binge-eating disorder is characterized by episodes of eating very large amounts of food in a short time. This can cause feelings of being out of control and leads to guilt and shame. People with bulimia also experience these feelings but they act on them by purging, which can include forcing themselves to vomit, taking laxatives or exercising excessively. People with bulimia may also have episodes of binge eating without purging afterwards or they might simply exercise to burn off the calories.
Those with bulimia also have periods of being preoccupied with their weight and body shape, with severe and harsh self-judgment of their appearance. They can become dehydrated and have electrolyte imbalances, including too much potassium, calcium and sodium, as a result of their habits.
Other specified feeding and eating disorder involves eating a very limited variety of foods or avoiding certain foods due to sensory characteristics such as texture, taste, color or smell. It can cause a feeling of being out of control when you eat and may interfere with social functioning and physical health.
There is no one cause for eating disorders but they seem to run in families. They might be triggered by stress or a history of abuse. They can also be a result of pressure from peers and a society that values thinness. People with eating disorders often have other psychological and medical problems such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
If you or someone you know has symptoms of an eating disorder, talk to a doctor right away. It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible because some types of eating disorders can be fatal. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re having and what type of treatment is best for you, such as outpatient therapy (schedule weekly visits to a counselor) or inpatient care at a hospital or eating disorder clinic. If you have a friend or family member who is struggling with an eating disorder, encourage them to see a doctor, even if they’re not ready to admit they have a problem. It’s not easy to ask for help but it might be the first step toward recovery.