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Understanding Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is an unhealthy obsession with food and weight. People with eating disorders eat, or stay away from eating, in extreme ways. At least 8 million people in the U.S. are living with an eating disorder. These disorders affect both females and males. Eating disorders occur more often in females than in males. And the numbers are increasing in males.

There are three main types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia severely restrict calories to the point of starvation. They are obsessed with being thin and have an unhealthy and distorted body image. They may refuse to eat at all. Or they may only eat tiny amounts of food that has few calories, or only a certain food. People with anorexia are extremely thin. But they constantly think of themselves as overweight.

  • Bulimia nervosa. People with bulimia nervosa binge on huge amounts of food. They then force themselves to vomit. They may also exercise compulsively. And they may take laxatives to help rid their body of the calories they've eaten. They continue this cycle of binging and purging. They may also diet excessively in between binges. People with bulimia nervosa aren't always extremely thin. In fact, they may often seem to be of normal weight.

  • Binge-eating disorder. This is also known as compulsive overeating. People who are binge eaters eat excessive amounts of food without purging. They often eat uncontrollably despite feeling full. They may feel guilty or ashamed after a binge. They then go on an extreme diet as a result. People who compulsively eat may be of normal weight, overweight, or obese. Anorexia and bulimia aren't common in men.

Other eating disorders don't quite fit into any of the above categories. These are often classified as "eating disorders not otherwise specified."

Managing eating disorders

Eating disorders can be treated successfully. But the answer isn't as simple as changing eating habits. This is because eating disorders are about much more than food. They stem from emotional issues and behavioral habits that must be addressed. A key part of treating and managing eating disorders is therapy. This includes cognitive behavioral therapy. Some people may also be prescribed medicines, such as antidepressants, to help overcome an eating disorder. Those with binge-eating disorder may sometimes need appetite suppressants to help manage their condition.

There isn't a single treatment that works for all eating disorders. Instead treatment is tailored to each person. It includes treatment advice from a variety of healthcare professionals.

Preventing eating disorders

Experts don't truly understand what causes eating disorders. Social pressure to meet a certain ideal body shape and weight may play a role. Other causes may include personal stress and possibly certain personality traits. You can take steps to help prevent eating disorders. This is true both before the first symptoms appear or in the early stages.

Programs that teach children and adults about healthy eating habits and a healthy body weight are one prevention method. It's also helpful to understand that society's pressures about body weight are unrealistic. Parents of young children and teens should keep track of their children's use of social media. Also, they should talk to their children about the messages various websites and apps send about body image. This can help to create a healthier body image and prevent eating disorders. 

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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