Eating disorders are real and serious illnesses that can
sometimes be life-threatening. They are also very common. Each year,
more than five million Americans have an eating disorder.
The major types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa,
bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. It is very likely
that you know someone with an eating disorder.
The good news is that there is hope. Learning how to
identify these disorders can help you to help yourself or a friend
with an eating disorder. With treatment, people do get better and
can return to their everyday lives.
People who intentionally starve themselves may have an eating
disorder called anorexia nervosa. The disorder, which usually begins
in young people around the time of puberty, involves extreme weight
loss - at least 15 percent below the individual's ideal body weight.
Many people with the disorder look extremely thin but are convinced
they are overweight. For reasons not yet understood, they become
terrified of gaining any weight. Sometimes they must be hospitalized
to prevent starvation. One in ten cases of anorexia nervosa leads
to death from starvation, cardiac arrest, other medical complications
Warning signs… a person may
-Not eat enough
-Feel "fat" even if he or she is very thin
-Always feel cold and tired
-exercise vigorously at odd hours
Medical complications of anorexia nervosa
· Starvation which can damage vital organs such as the heart and brain
· Monthly menstrual periods stop (for women)
· Breathing, pulse, and blood pressure rates drop, and thyroid function
· Nails and hair become brittle
· The skin dries, yellows, and becomes covered with soft, fine hair
· Excessive thirst and frequent urination may occur
· Mild anemia, swollen joints, reduced muscle mass
· Bones may become brittle and prone to breakage
People with bulimia nervosa consume large amounts of food
and rid their bodies of the excess calories by vomiting, abusing
laxatives or diuretics (drugs that increase urination), taking enemas,
or exercising obsessively. Some use a combination of all these forms
of purging. Because many individuals with bulimia "binge and
purge" in secret and maintain normal or above normal body weight,
they can often successfully hide their problem from others for years.
Warning signs… a person may
-Eat a lot of food quickly, then
get rid of it by purging
-Gain and lose weight often
-Have irregular menstrual periods (for women)
-Starve himself or herself after eating instead of purging
Medical Complications of bulimia nervosa
· An irregular heartbeat
· Dehydration (the body doesn't have enough water)
· Tooth decay from the stomach acid found in vomit
· Cuts and scrapes on the backs of hands when fingers are pushed down
the throat to induce vomiting
Binge Eating Disorder
An illness that resembles bulimia nervosa is binge eating
disorder. Like bulimia, this disorder is characterized by episodes
of uncontrolled eating or bingeing. However, binge eating disorder
differs from bulimia because individuals do not purge their bodies
of excess food. One-third to one-fourth of all people with binge
eating disorders are men.
Warning signs… a person may
-Not stop eating when full
-Become obese or gain weight rapidly
-Eat a lot of food in a short time without purging afterwards
Medical complications of binge eating disorder
· Serious medical problems associated with obesity,
such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes
Why do young people develop
There may be more than one reason a person develops an eating disorder.
A person's self image
Most people with eating disorders share certain personality
traits: low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness and a fear of becoming
The need to be perfect
People with anorexia tend to be "too good to be true." They
tend to be perfectionists, keep their feelings to themselves, are
often good students and excellent athletes.
A stressful personal life
People who develop bulimia and binge eating disorder typically
consume huge amounts of food- often junk food- to reduce stress and
relieve anxiety. With binge eating, however, comes guilt and depression.
Purging can bring relief, but it is only temporary. Individuals with
bulimia are often impulsive and more likely to engage in risky behavior
such as abuse of alcohol and drugs.
Society or family pressures
Individuals with eating disorders often have a parent or
other family member who is overly critical of their weight. People
pursuing professions that emphasize thinness- like modeling, dancing,
gymnastics, wrestling and long-distance running- are more susceptible
to the problem.
The body's chemistry
In the central nervous system- particularly the brain-
key chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters control hormone
production. Scientists have learned that levels of these neurotransmitters
are decreased in acutely ill people with anorexia and bulimia and
long-term recovered anorexia patients.
Many young people with eating disorders also have other
mental illnesses such as clinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic
stress disorder, personality or substance abuse disorders, and many
are at risk for suicide.
Eating disorders are most successfully treated when diagnosed
early. The first step is a complete physical examination to rule
out any other illnesses. Once an eating disorder is diagnosed, a
doctor will decide if the person is in immediate medical danger and
should be treated in a hospital.
Treatment plans usually include a combination
-Cognitive behavioral therapy - learning new patterns of
behavior with food and relationships
-Psychotherapy - talking out problems with a trained professional and finding
ways to solve them. Individual, group and family therapy are often recommended.
-Nutritional counseling - understanding proper nutrition, restoring normal
body weight and learning to eat in a healthy manner are critical to recovery.
-Medication- certain drugs may be prescribed to relieve depression, anxiety
and bingeing. Studies show that antidepressants can be used successfully to
treat some people with eating disorders.
Hospital care may be necessary if a person
· Excessive and rapid weight loss
· Severe bingeing and purging
· Serious medical complications
· Clinical depression and suicidal thoughts
National Eating Disorders Organization
Works to prevent eating disorders; and provides treatment referrals.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated
Focus on education and advocacy; and offers free support and self-help groups.