An eating disorder is a serious medical illness. Eating disorders can be characterized by limiting food take or overeating. Sometimes exercise, vomiting, laxatives, or diuretics are used to eliminate food and calories from the body.
A common misconception is that everyone with an eating disorder is visibly skinny or at a low body weight. Eating disorders are generally kept secret, and people may deny that they have a problem.
The main types of eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Binge eating
- Disordered eating, which can be a precursor to a full-blown eating disorder, characterized by ritualistic eating habits, body image issues, and changes in eating habits that are less severe than an eating disorder
What are the signs and symptoms of eating disorders?
Look for these signs and symptoms:
- Dramatic and fast weight loss
- Calorie counting and weight preoccupation
- Overexercising, or engaging in strenuous physical activity to the point that it is unsafe and unhealthy
- Rituals around food and eating (i.e., taking tiny bites, ignoring certain food groups, rearranging food on the plate, skipping certain meals altogether, or pretending to eat the food)
- Using laxatives, diuretics, ipecac syrup, enemas, or smoking to purge food and/or suppress appetite
- Wearing big or baggy clothes or dressing in layers to hide body shape and/or weight loss
- Making frequent trips to the bathroom immediately following meals
- Having low self-esteem
- Fearing a loss of control when eating, and/or inability to stop eating once started
What are the causes of eating disorders?
There are many factors that may contribute to developing an eating disorder, including:
- Personal characteristics like low-self esteem and poor self-image
- Stress, leading to a need to be in control of something
- Exposure to friends and family members that criticize weight and body image
- Family members that have had, or currently have an eating disorder
- Social pressures and messages equating beauty with thinness
Eating disorders can become chronic and life-threatening if not identified or treated in their early stages. Treatment of eating disorders is often tailored specifically on an individual basis. Most treatments involve forms of psychotherapy and psychological counseling in connection with nutrition and medical support. Counseling, medical, and nutritional help should always be given by a health care or mental health professional. Relapse rates from eating disorders are estimated at 30 – 50%, so long term monitoring and treatment is important.
To help prevent eating disorders in yourself and others, you can:
- Educate yourself about eating disorders including their symptoms and causes
- Do not oversimplify or downplay eating disorders as an addiction to food, a way for an individual to have attention drawn to themselves, or only a women’s issue
- Do not put yourself in situations or spend time with individuals that make you feel uncomfortable about your body or body image
- Understand social and psychological factors in society that influence eating disorders such as media, Hollywood, etc.
When should I see a health care provider?
It is important that treatment for eating disorders be provided by a health care or mental health provider. If you are constantly preoccupied with food, body image, or exercise, consider contacting a health care provider.
Helping someone who may have an eating disorder
Helping a friend or loved one with an eating disorder can save a life. You can help by engaging them in an open dialogue with the goal of seeking help from a health care provider. 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? Before talking to your friend, consider these suggestions:
- Educate yourself on eating disorders and available resources beforehand
- Choose a time free of distractions and divorced from the issue at hand (ie. not during meals or exercise)
- Avoid criticism and judgment. State what you have observed that has led you to believe they may have an eating disorder
- Be prepared for a variety of reactions such as crying, anger, and denial. Do not take these reactions personally
- If the individual does not want to seek help and/or continues to deny an eating disorder, explain that you are still concerned and are hoping, and available to talk to them about the issue again
- Committee on Eating Disorder Awareness (CEDA) (ASUW)
- Hall Health Mental Health Clinic
- University of Washington Counseling Center (Schmitz Hall)
- Articles about Healthy Eating (Campus Blues)
- Eating Disorder Survival Guide (National Eating Disorders Association)
- Kids and Eating Disorders (KidsHealth)
- What Should I Say—Talking to a Friend with an Eating Disorder (National Eating Disorders Association)
Authored by: Peer Health Educator
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014