Eating disorders involve dangerous behaviors related to food, weight and body shape that can cause serious problems with health and may lead to death. They’re linked with heart disease, stomach ulcers, osteoporosis, brain damage and problems with the mouth, teeth and bones. They also contribute to depression, anxiety and self-harm. With proper treatment, people with eating disorders can return to healthy behaviors and learn better ways to think about food, weight and body shape.
What characteristics do individuals with eating disorders share?
Eating disorders are characterized by extreme preoccupation with food, a fear of weight gain and distorted body image. They often develop in adolescence and early adulthood, but can affect people of any age. They are more common among women and in high-income countries.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically restrict their calories, resulting in an extremely low body weight. They have an intense fear of becoming fat, and they are often driven to achieve a perfect physique despite the health risks associated with this behavior. Anorexia nervosa is often accompanied by depressive and bipolar disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is also linked with a high rate of suicide (APA, 2022).
Bulimia nervosa involves a pattern of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors to get rid of the extra calories, such as vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise. Binge-eating episodes are typically accompanied by a feeling of lack of control and guilt.
Individuals with bulimia are also preoccupied with body shape and weight, and they have severe, harsh self-judgment of their appearance. In addition, they are often secretive about their eating habits and have trouble socializing with friends because they don’t want others to know they’re doing this.
Athletes who have a compulsive drive to be muscular may develop a condition called muscle dysmorphia, which is similar to anorexia and bulimia nervosa. It is often accompanied by a fear of being overweight, a fixation on exercise and strict rules about eating, ingredient checking and isolation from friends during meals.
Having family members with an eating disorder can increase the risk for developing one. It can also be more likely in people with a history of trauma, depression or other mental illness. Other factors include genetics, biology and environmental influences. The most common warning signs of an eating disorder include unexplained weight changes or drastic weight loss, strict rules about food and exercise, secretive behavior around food and a fixation on body size. If you see these symptoms in yourself or someone else, have a compassionate, nonjudgmental conversation and seek professional help. You can ask your doctor for a referral to a provider with expertise in eating disorders. You can also visit a specialist at a hospital or community mental health clinic. They can help determine whether you or the person has an eating disorder and recommend treatment options.