The National Eating Disorders Association estimates about 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have or had an eating disorder at some point in their lives. An eating disorder is a complex mental health issue requiring medical and psychological assistance to alter its course. A severe eating disorder may be fatal if left untreated.
Eating disorders might start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape. There are many symptoms associated with eating disorders. However, the most common of these behaviors include acute food restraining behavior, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercising. Prevalent among young women and adolescents, eating disorders can affect anyone at any age.
Anorexia nervosa is considered the most well-known eating disorder. Those with anorexia generally see themselves as overweight, even if they’re severely underweight. They typically restrict their calories, avoid eating certain foods and continuously monitor their weight.
Obsessive-compulsive traits may be present in people suffering from anorexia. For example, individuals with anorexia are often preoccupied with food thoughts, and some may hoard food.
Anorexia is officially classified into two subtypes: binge eating and purging and restricting. Both binge eating and purging type involve eating large quantities of food or eating very little food. An individual with a restricting subtype of anorexia loses weight by dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise. Both subtypes purge after consuming food using vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, or excessive exercise.
Anorexia can be very harmful to the body. Patients suffering from this condition may experience thinning of their bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and the appearance of a thick layer of fine hair all over their body. Anorexia in severe cases can result in heart, brain, or other organ failures, and even death.
Bulimia nervosa is a condition in which a person eats excessive quantities of food in a specified period, usually ending in being painfully full. During an eating binge, the individual usually feels that they cannot stop eating or control how much they are eating. Binge eating can occur with any type of food but most frequently occurs with foods that a person would normally not consume.
Bulimics purge to compensate for excess calories and alleviate stomach discomfort. Purging behavior includes forced vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and excessive exercise.
Symptoms may resemble those associated with the binge eating or purging subtypes of anorexia nervosa. Unlike individuals with anorexia, those with bulimia usually maintain a relatively average weight and do not become underweight.
Bulimia can cause an inflamed and sore throat, swollen glands in the mouth, worn enamel on the teeth, tooth decay, acid reflux, inflammation of the gut, extreme dehydration, and hormonal imbalance. Bulimia can also alter electrolyte levels in the body, leading to a stroke or heart attack.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is considered one of the most prevalent eating disorders in the United States. The symptoms associated with this disorder are similar to those of binge eating subtype of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. People may eat vast amounts of food during binges in relatively short periods and experience loss of control.
Individuals with binge eating disorders do not restrict calories or engage in purging activities, such as excessive exercise or vomiting, to compensate for their binges. Those suffering from binge eating disorder are often overweight or obese. This may increase their risk of health problems associated with excess weight, including heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.
Pica is an eating disorder involving the eating of non-food items. Individuals who suffer from pica crave non-food substances such as ice, dirt, soap, chalk, hair, paper, clothing, rocks or pebbles, laundry detergent, and cornstarch.
Pica patients may be at greater risk of getting poisoned, getting infected, experiencing gastrointestinal injuries, and suffering nutritional deficiencies. Pica may be fatal depending on the substances ingested. The practice of consuming non-food items, if a part of a person’s culture or religion, is not considered pica.
Rumination disorder is a state in which people regurgitate previously chewed and swallowed food, chew it again, and either re-swallow it or spit it out. Unlike medical conditions like reflux, it is voluntary and occurs within the first 30 minutes following a meal. Rumination disorder can result in severe malnutrition and weight loss that can be fatal.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Individuals with this avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) exhibit disturbed eating habits due to boredom or a distaste for particular tastes, smells, colors, textures, and temperatures. ARFID goes beyond the kinds of behaviors normal to young children or older adults, like picky eating.
Other Eating Disorders
In addition to the six eating disorders listed above, there are less-known or less-common eating disorders. Generally, these fall under one of three categories:
- Purging disorder: Individuals do not binge but do frequently purge to control their weight or shape, using vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise
- Night eating syndrome: People suffering from this syndrome often eat excessively after waking from sleep
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): These conditions include those with symptoms similar to an eating disorder that does not fall into the categories above
This information is not to diagnose or treat any symptoms. Eating disorders are mental health conditions that require treatment. Untreated, they can cause harm to the body. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, seek professional help from a healthcare practitioner specializing in eating disorders.
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