Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions characterized by severe disturbances in eating behavior and a preoccupation with food, body weight or shape. They can cause long-term physical and psychological damage. People of all ages, genders and races can develop an eating disorder, although they are most common in adolescent females.
Experts are still learning what causes eating disorders, but they know that genetics and environmental factors play a role. People with a family history of the condition have a higher risk. Studies also suggest that certain genes might make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Stress and emotional issues also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Many people who have an eating disorder use food as a way to try to cope with feelings of sadness, loneliness or anxiety. This can lead to a vicious cycle where the person uses the food to control their emotions and then feels guilty about eating too much, which leads them to restrict food even more.
A person can have one of four main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and atypical eating disorder. In anorexia nervosa, people severely restrict calories and usually weigh themselves frequently. They might also purge food through vomiting, extreme exercise or laxatives. People with anorexia can be of any body size, but are typically underweight.
People with bulimia nervosa have episodes of bingeing on large amounts of food in a short period of time. They then take steps to avoid gaining weight, such as fasting or excessive exercise. They might also eat in secret or use diet pills or laxatives. People with bulimia can be of any body weight and may have periods of being at a healthy weight, but they will most often be underweight.
Binge eating disorder is a type of atypical eating disorder where a person loses control over their eating. They eat large quantities of food quickly, often until they are uncomfortably full. They do not purge or exercise excessively afterward, like those with bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
Unlike some other forms of mental illness, eating disorders can affect people of all ages and sexes. They are more common in girls and women, but they can affect men and boys of any age or sex. People in families that are affluent and have high standards of appearance may be at greater risk. Research suggests that a person’s sexual orientation and gender can also influence their risk for developing an eating disorder. Gay males, for example, appear to be at higher risk for developing an eating disorder than heterosexual men. In addition, some professions can cause people to feel pressure to look a certain way, such as modeling or being an athlete. Eating disorders are a dangerous and life-threatening illness, but recovery is possible. It is important to seek help early. People who are dedicated to addressing the underlying issues that caused their eating disorder can recover.