They are serious diseases that are characterized by significant disorders in eating behaviors. Obsession with food, weight and body shape, can be signs of an eating disorder.
These disorders can affect physical and mental health and, in some cases, can be life-threatening.
However, eating disorders can be treated. Learning more about them can help spot warning signs and seek treatment early.
The exact cause of eating disorders is not fully understood, but research suggests that a combination of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors may increase the risk of having this type of disorder.
Keep in mind that people with eating disorders did not choose to live like this. They are medical diseases with a biological influence. They can appear healthy and yet be extremely sick.
Who can have an eating disorder?
They can affect people of all ages, racial or ethnic origins, body weights, and genders. Although eating disorders often appear during adolescence or early adulthood, they can also appear during childhood or at any stage of life.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
The most common types of eating disorder are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive eating disorder (ARFID).
- anorexia nervosa
- They eat very little on purpose, which leads to their having a very low body weight.
- They are terrified of gaining weight. They can't stand the idea of being fat.
- They have a distorted body image. They still look fat, despite being very thin.
- They are very strict about what they should eat and how much. They may be constantly counting calories.
- Low blood pressure (or hypotension)
- Slow pulse or irregular heart rate
- Feeling tired, weak, dizzy and even faint
- Constipation and bloating
- irregular periods
- weak bones
- Delayed puberty and slower than normal growth
- They feel lonely, sad or depressed, with anxiety and fears
- Have thoughts of harming themselves
Over time, these symptoms may also occur:
- Loss of bone mass (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
- Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
- Brittle hair and nails
- dry and yellowish skin
- Fine hair growth all over the body (lanugo)
- severe constipation
- Low blood pressure, slow breathing and pulse
- Damage to the structure and function of the heart
- Decrease in internal body temperature, making the person feel cold all the time
- Lethargy, sluggishness, or constant tiredness
- Brain damage
- Multiple organ dysfunction (serious disturbances in the function of two or more organs)
Anorexia can be deadly. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality (death) rate of any other mental disorder. People with anorexia can die from medical problems and complications associated with starvation (starvation).
By comparison, people with other eating disorders die by suicide.
- bulimia nervosa
- They eat too much and feel like they lose control to stop eating. This is called binge eating.
- They may vomit on purpose to compensate or correct overeating behavior after having eaten too much. This is known as purging. To prevent weight gain they can use laxatives, diuretics, weight loss pills, fasting or doing a lot of physical exercise.
- They judge themselves based only on their body appearance and weight.
People with bulimia nervosa eat much more (over a given period of time) than most people eat. If a person binge eats and purges regularly, this may be a sign that they have bulimia nervosa. Unlike people with anorexia nervosa, who are very underweight, people with bulimia nervosa can be thin, have average body weight, or be overweight. People with bulimia nervosa often hide their binge eating and purging.
- Low blood pressure (or hypotension)
- irregular heart rate
- You may feel tired, weak, dizzy, or even faint
- Blood may appear in vomit or feces (poop)
- Erosion and dental caries
- Swollen cheeks (salivary glands)
- Low self-esteem, anxiety and depression
- Alcohol use or drug problems
- Thoughts of harming themselves
- binge eating disorder
- Similar to bulimia nervosa, they eat too much and feel out of control to stop eating.
- They eat large amounts of food even when they are not hungry.
- They may feel bad or guilty after having a binge.
- They often gain weight, and can be very overweight.
Many people with binge eating disorder eat faster than normal. They can eat alone so others don't see how much they eat.
Unlike people with bulimia nervosa, people with binge eating disorder do not voluntarily vomit, use laxatives, or exercise to compensate for their binges. If a person binge eats at least once a week for three months in a row, this may be a sign of binge eating disorder.
- arterial hypertension (high blood pressure)
- high cholesterol and high triglycerides
- fatty liver
- Sleep apnea
- Have low self-esteem, anxiety or depression
- Feel lonely, out of control, angry, or powerless
- They have trouble coping with strong emotions or stressful events.
- Avoidant/restrictive eating disorder
- They have no interest in food or avoid food.
- They lose or do not gain weight depending on what would be expected.
- They are not afraid of gaining weight.
- They do not have a negative or distorted body image of themselves.
People with this disorder do not eat because they dislike the smell, taste, texture, or color of the food. They may be afraid of vomiting and/or choking on food and suffer from aspiration suffocation.
- Not getting enough vitamins, minerals, or protein
- Having to be fed and supplemented by tube
- grow less than normal
- Anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Autism spectrum disorders or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Problems at home and at school derived from their eating behavior
What are the causes of eating disorders?
They do not have a single cause. Genes, environment and stress play a very important role. There are a few factors that can increase the odds:
- Distorted or negative body image
- Focusing too much on physical appearance or weight
- Go on a diet at an early age
- Playing sports that focus on weight (gymnastics, ballet, ice skating, and wrestling)
- Having a family member with an eating disorder
- Mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or OCD
How are eating disorders diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose an eating disorder based on your medical history, symptoms, thought patterns, eating behaviors, and a physical examination.
The doctor will record the person's weight and height and compare these measurements using a growth chart. The doctor may order tests to see if there may be another cause of the eating problems and to evaluate problems caused by the eating disorder.
How are eating disorders treated?
They are best dealt with when there is a team of professionals, which usually includes a doctor, a dietitian or nutritionist, and a therapist. Treatment includes psychotherapy, medical care and follow-up, nutritional counselling, medications, or a combination of these forms of treatment, nutrition counseling, medical care, and psychotherapy (individual, group, and family).
The main goals of treatment include restoring proper nutrition, achieving a healthy weight, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping bingeing and purging. A full recovery is possible.
Some specific forms of psychotherapy (or "talk therapy") and cognitive-behavioral approaches may be effective in treating specific eating disorders.
What do I do if I think I have an eating disorder?
First of all, talk about it with someone: parents, teacher, school counselor, or another trusted adult. Explain to him what you are going through. And ask them for help.
Asking for help as soon as possible is vital to be able to tackle the problem at an early stage. The more time passes, the more it will cost to reach a full recovery and the more risks will be suffered.
Go to all your medical visits. Treatment involves time and effort. Work hard to learn things about yourself and your emotions. Ask all the questions you need to ask.
Be patient with yourself. There is a lot to learn, and changes happen little by little.
Take care of yourself and spend time with people who support you.
Where can I get help?
https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/espanol/index.shtml (Spanish) http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies/index.shtml (English).