Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions that affect people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. They involve more than just a disturbance in eating behaviors, and may cause emotional and physical problems such as heart and gastrointestinal issues. People who have an eating disorder often use disordered eating behavior to cope with difficult situations or feelings. Those behaviors can include skipping meals or severely restricting calories, eating very large quantities of food at once, purging by vomiting or misusing laxatives, excessive exercise, fasting or taking diet pills.
Some people are at greater risk for developing an eating disorder than others, but it is important to remember that anyone can develop an eating disorder. There are many environmental and genetic factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, and each person’s risk is unique.
Often, the precipitating event that initiates an eating disorder is not something obvious, but rather some sort of trigger such as weight-related teasing or an underlying temperamental tendency toward perfectionism and dieting. People with a history of trauma or a family history of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder also have an increased risk of having an eating disorder.
A variety of symptoms can be seen in someone with an eating disorder, and they include low appetite and a lack of interest in food or body image. Other symptoms can be a change in weight, a fear of fatness or a preoccupation with weight or shape concerns. Those who are at the highest risk for medical complications from an eating disorder, particularly those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, are typically underweight, even if they look healthy and appear to be at or above the average BMI for their age.
While some of these symptoms can be missed by well-meaning family members, friends and health care providers, there are some signs that can help people recognize the need for treatment early. For example, children who are being weighed at well-child visits or on a school wellness program can be asked questions about their diet and eating habits, and families can keep an eye out for big changes.
It is important to understand that the cause of an eating disorder is complex, and it is common for multiple factors to interact and play a role. The media’s promotion of unrealistically slender models and the high rate of body dissatisfaction in our culture are both important contributors, but they are not alone. It is also important to note that the most effective way to treat an eating disorder is through a combination of psychotherapy, nutrition education and support for a normalized body image. Eating disorders are also associated with a variety of other psychiatric disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These co-occurring conditions can make it more challenging to recover from the eating disorder. They can also increase the risk of death from suicide or a range of medical complications such as cardiac arrest and electrolyte imbalances.