What are eating disorders? According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders are ” serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.”  NEDA states that eating disorders can be physically dangerous and emotionally draining and that they always require professional help.

What are the Major Types of Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa. Self-starvation and extreme loss of weight characterize anorexia nervosa. People who suffer from anorexia nervosa refuse to maintain their body weight at the minimal normal weight for their age, size, and activity level.  People with anorexia nervosa have a deep fear of gaining weight or being fat. They feel fat or overweight even after they have lost considerable weight. They tend to have extreme concern with the weight and shape of their bodies. As a result of their self-starvation women with anorexia nervosa often stop menstruating. Anorexia is a very serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder; it has a higher rate of premature fatality than any other mental illness.

Anorexia can result in a number of serious health issues, including:

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which put the person at risk for heart failure;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Muscle loss, muscle weakness;
  • Fainting, fatigue, overall weakness;
  • Dehydration, which can lead to kidney disease;
  • Dry hair and skin as well as loss of hair; and
  • Growth of lanugo, which is a downy layer of hair all over the body that emerges to keep the body warm.

Bulimia Nervosa. Cyclical binge eating and purging define bulimia nervosa.  People with bulimia eat very large amounts of food in short periods of time. They then rid themselves of the food by inducing vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising excessively. People with bulimia feel out of control while binging and have extreme concern with their body weight and shape. They tend to diet frequently.

Possible health consequences of bulimia include:

  • Electrolyte imbalance caused by dehydration that can lead to heart failure and death;
  • Gastric rupture during binging;
  • Inflammation and potential rupture of the esophagus;
  • Tooth decay and tooth staining;
  • Chronic problems with bowel movements and constipation; and
  • Peptic ulcers and inflammation of the pancreas.

Compulsive Overeating or Binge Eating Disorder. Uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond what is comfortable typifies people who have compulsive overeating disorder. Loneliness, anxiety, and/or depression can contribute to their overeating. Fasts and repetitive diets may follow the over eating. People who overeat compulsively often feel shame or self-hatred after a binge. Individuals who are compulsive overeaters vary in weight from normal to mildly, moderately, or severely obese.

Compulsive overeating and binge eating can result in:

  • High blood pressure;
  • High levels of cholesterol;
  • Heart disease;
  • Type II diabetes; and
  • Gallbladder disease.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are not just about food. They seem to have deeper roots in the emotional and biological makeup of certain people, as well as the society in which they grow up. The causes of eating disorders are not simple, nor are they entirely understood.

According to NEDA, many factors can contribute to eating disorders. Low self-esteem, depression, anger, loneliness, and anxiety are among the psychological factors. People who have eating disorders may have difficulty with personal relationships and with expressing their feelings. They may have been teased about their size or weight. Many have been physically or sexually abused.

Cultural and social pressures that value thinness and the perfect body can also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Along with this are the higher values our culture often places on physical appearance above other qualities, strengths, and abilities.

Biology may also play a role in eating disorders; scientists are still exploring these connections. Genetic factors may account, at least in part, for the common occurrence of eating disorders in families across generations. Scientists are also looking into the possibility that imbalances in brain chemistry may impact digestion, appetite, and hunger.

What is Eating Disorders Prevention

The NEDA recommends a number of actions that parents and people who work with children and teens can do to help prevent young people from developing eating disorders. Many of these suggestions involve changes adults can make in their own behaviors to serve as positive role models.

Following are suggestions for preventing eating disorders based on NEDA’s recommendations.

  • Examine your own attitudes about food and body image and try to make changes as needed.
  • Replace extreme eating and exercising habits with more moderate ones.
  • Allow all foods in your home.
  • Eat and encourage eating in response to body hunger.
  • Eat and encourage eating a variety of foods in moderation.
  • Convey to children that weight and appearance are not the most important aspects of their identity and self worth.
  • Build self-esteem in children.
  • Pay attention to and openly challenge media messages that are counter to healthy eating and healthy body images.
  • Encourage open communication and critical thinking.
  • Do not use food as either a reward or a punishment.
  • Help children accept, respect, and enjoy their bodies.
  • Encourage physical activity.
  • Be aware of the warning signs of eating disorders, such as refusing family meals, skipping meals, comments about being too fat, signs of extreme diet or binge eating or purging, withdrawal from friends, irritability, depression.

How Extensive is the Problem of Eating Disorders?

Knowing what eating disorders are and how to prevent them are important steps in addressing this very serious and growing problem. Estimates of people in the United States who are suffering from eating disorders go as high as ten million females and one million males. And numbers continue to climb, with a three-fold increase in the incidence of bulimia nervosa in just the five years between 1988 and 1993. The cultural emphasis on thinness contributes to the incidence of extreme dieting and eating disorders in this country.