People who have an eating disorder often develop distorted views of themselves. They may see themselves as fat, ugly or unattractive despite being underweight. These distorted beliefs lead to extreme efforts to control weight and body shape. Over time, this can have life-threatening consequences.
Eating disorders can occur at any age and affect men, women and children of all body sizes. Some of the most common are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Symptoms vary depending on the type of eating disorder.
Those who struggle with an eating disorder may restrict calories, skip meals, exercise excessively and develop rituals around mealtimes. They may also avoid certain foods, move food around on their plate or eat in private. These behaviors can cause serious health problems, including malnutrition and heart issues. They can also interfere with a person’s normal functioning and cause psychiatric symptoms like depression or anxiety.
People with anorexia nervosa become obsessed with thinness and lose weight rapidly. They may skip meals, eat far less than needed and believe they are overweight despite being underweight. They can also experience a variety of symptoms such as changes in mood, loss of hair or teeth and gastrointestinal problems including bloating, constipation and acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD).
Individuals with anorexia can be found across all social classes and cultures. It is thought that the condition is caused by a combination of genetic vulnerability, environment and societal pressures to be thin. Many studies show that eating disorders run in families. Precipitating factors include dieting, overeating or weight gain; a significant change in life such as a job, school or relationship change; stressors like illness, injury or the death of a loved one; and emotional trauma.
Anorexia can result in serious health complications such as low blood pressure, heart rhythm problems and nutrient deficiencies. Over time, it can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys. It can also cause irregular periods (amenorrhea) in women and sterility in those who have had the condition for a long time.
The four main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BED is the most common form of the eating disorder and involves the compulsive behavior of binging then compensating through vomiting or laxative use. BED can also lead to a variety of psychological effects including feelings of guilt, shame and regret.
It’s important to know that eating disorders are not a choice and they do not reflect a desire for perfection or a way to gain self-esteem. They are a sign of severe mental and physical illness that need to be treated with medical care and therapy.
Psychotherapy can help improve a person’s ability to maintain a healthy weight and develop a more balanced relationship with food. Treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals understand and challenge distorted thinking patterns that drive their behavior. It can also include a family-based approach known as the Maudsley method, where parents actively guide their children’s eating during recovery.