An eating disorder is a medical illness caused by a disturbance in eating or exercising habits or body image that negatively affects a person's overall health. Eating disorders are often characterized by severely limiting food intake or excessive overeating. Sometimes exercise, vomiting, laxatives, or diuretics are used to eliminate food and calories from the body after an individual has eaten, or binged. Although there are other types of eating disorders, the three main types of eating disorders are:
More common than eating disorders is disordered eating. Disordered eating is similarly characterized by ritualistic eating habits, body image issues, and changes in eating habits that are less severe than an eating disorder. Disordered eating can be a precursor to developing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are generally kept secret. A common misconception is that everyone with an eating disorder is visibly skinny or at a low body weight. Look for these signs and symptoms:
While there is no one single cause or predisposition that will necessarily lead to an eating disorder, the following are characteristics that many individuals with eating disorders exhibit:
Early diagnosis and intervention are important for recovery from an eating disorder. Eating disorders can become chronic and life-threatening if not identified or treated in their early stages. Treatment of eating disorders involves a multi-faceted approach that is often tailored specifically on an individual basis. Most treatments involve forms of psychotherapy and psychological counseling in connection with supplying medical and nutritional needs to the patient. Counseling, medical, and nutritional help should always be given by a health care professional. Relapse rates from eating disorders are estimated at 30 – 50%, so continued attention should be given after the disorder has initially been treated.
To help prevent eating disorders in yourself and others, you can:
It is important that treatment for eating disorders be provided by a health care provider. If you are constantly preoccupied with food, body image, or exercise, consider contacting a health care provider.
Helping an individual with an eating disorders involves trying to engage them in an open dialogue about the issue at hand with the goal of them getting help from a health care professional. When deciding whether to discuss these issues with someone, think about your relationship to the individual. Does he or she consider you a close, trusted, and appropriate person to confront them about this issue? When confronting someone with an eating disorder, consider these suggestions:
University of Washington Resources
Eating Disorders Can Be Prevented! National Eating Disorders Association. 2006. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/eatingdisorders.html. Accessed April 14th, 2007.
Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions. National Institute of Mental Health. February 2nd, 2006. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/eatingdisorders.cfm. Accessed April 14th, 2007.
Eating Disorders: Helping a Friend. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Counseling Services. April 11th, 2007. Available at: http://www.uwec.edu/Counsel/pubs/helpafriend.htm. Accessed May 4th, 2007.
Eating Disorders: Helping a Friend. Villanova University. Available at: http://www.villanova.edu/studentlife/counselingcenter/infosheets/psych_topics.htm?page=friend_eating_disorders.htm. Accessed May 4th, 2007.
Know the Signs of Eating Disorders. Medline Plus, National Institute of Health. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_44775.html. Accessed April 14th, 2007.
What Are Eating Disorders? Harris Center, Massachusetts General Hospital. 2006. Available at: http://www.harriscentermgh.org/. Accessed April 14th, 2007.
Authored by: Jeff Stallman, Peer Health Educator
Reviewed by: Rebecca Greenberg, PsyD