What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental illness that, if untreated, can be dangerous to a person’s overall health. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating are the most common types of eating disorders.

An eating disorder usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood. However, it can develop at any time throughout life. The illness affects both males and females.

Eating disorders can be life-threatening. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Who is at risk for an eating disorder?

Studies show that 90 percent of eating disorder sufferers are females. Yet the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that more than 30 percent of adolescent males use unhealthy weight control methods.

Eating disorders are common in cultures where there is much easily available food. People of all ages can suffer from eating disorders but those in their teens and low to mid-twenties are at the greatest risk. If a parent or sibling has or had an eating disorder, a person is also at increased risk.

What are the different types of eating disorders?

Anorexia nervosa is an illness characterized by self-starvation.Symptoms and warning signs of anorexia include:

  • Weight loss
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Restriction of food groups
  • Obsession over weight, food, and dieting
  • Denial of hunger
  • Too much exercise with obsessive need to burn off calories
  • Eating rituals such as eating at certain times, chewing excessively, or arranging food in a specific way
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and daily activities

Health consequences of anorexia include:

  • Low heart rate and blood pressure, which can change the heart muscle, risking heart failure
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Loss of bone density
  • Muscle loss
  • Dry hair and skin; hair loss
  • Severe dehydration which can lead to kidney problems
  • Fainting and overall weakness
  • Fatigue

Bulimia nervosa is overeating followed by self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives or diuretics (water pills that increase urination) to prevent weight gain.
Symptoms and warning signs of bulimia include:

  • Feeling of being out of control while eating
  • Body image issues
  • Hiding food and empty food wrappers
  • Swelling of cheeks and jaw caused by inflamed tissue from overeating
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and daily activities
  • Constant trips to the bathroom after eating

Health consequences of bulimia include:

  • Electrolyte imbalance which can lead to irregular heartbeat
  • Tooth decay and staining from acid of vomit
  • Frequent constipation or diarrhea
  • Possible swelling or rupture of the esophagus

In extreme cases bulimia can be deadly. The cycle of constant binging and purging can have damaging effects on normal body functions. Bulimia can affect the lungs, heart, and kidneys. Low potassium levels caused by purging can cause irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) that may lead to other serious heart problems.
Binge eating disorder is overeating (without trying to prevent weight gain with vomiting, laxatives, or other methods).
Symptoms and warning signs of binge eating disorders include:

  • Feeling of being out of control while eating
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Feeling shame or guilt after binge eating
  • Hiding food and empty food wrappers

Health consequences of binge eating disorders include:

What causes eating disorders?

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. Behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, and social factors all may contribute to the illness. Research has found that genetics is a factor. People with a family member who has had an eating disorder are seven to 12 times more likely to develop one.

Media plays a large role in our view of body image. Many men and women believe that society’s focus on the perfect body contributes to their eating disorder.

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