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We all overeat from time to time. We may feel bad about it and then diet to lose a few pounds. But
when your eating behavior becomes extreme—including a severe, continued decrease in eating and repeated episodes of overeating, accompanied by overwhelming, negative feelings about yourself or your body—you could have an eating disorder.
An eating disorder is a treatable medical illness with psychological causes and may be accompanied by depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Common Eating Disorders
The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Both are serious conditions that require medical monitoring.
People with anorexia demonstrate an unrelenting effort to lose weight, an unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight, and an extreme fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia are often very thin, even emaciated. Their bodies do not have the nutrients necessary to function normally.
Symptoms of anorexia include:
- Refusing to eat
- Losing weight quickly
- Having a distorted body image, feeling overweight even when you are malnourished or have low weight
- Exercising excessively to lose weight
- Having an intense fear of gaining weight
Bulimia is characterized by repeated episodes of excessive eating, or binges. During a binge, a person with bulimia loses control over his or her eating and then experiences an intense urge to get rid of the food by purging. Purging can take many forms, including self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives. Unlike those suffering with anorexia, people with bulimia often remain within a normal weight range.
Symptoms of bulimia include:
- Binge eating in private, followed by feelings of remorse and shame
- Self-induced vomiting after meals
- Abuse of laxatives or diuretics
- Extreme dissatisfaction with body size and shape
- Planning the day to find times for secretive binging and purging
Who Suffers from Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders typically affect teenage girls and young adult women. However, an increasing number of older adult women, men, and boys are reporting symptoms of anorexia and bulimia.
Some noticeable signs of anorexia and bulimia include:
- Making excuses to avoid or skip meals
- Going to the bathroom frequently after meals
- Developing food rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or rearranging food on the plate while eating little
- Discoloration of teeth
- A preoccupation with weight, food, calories, or fat grams
Untreated eating disorders are fatal for up to 20 percent of those diagnosed. However, fatalities decrease to below 3 percent with treatment. Early identification and treatment are good predictors of success.
Treatment, involving a team of professionals, may include:
- Psychotherapy to address underlying causes of the eating disorder
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to develop practical skills to manage eating disorder behaviors
- Weight restoration, when needed
- Nutrition counseling
- Medical monitoring by the primary care doctor
Read our Eating Disorders brochure for more information.
Helpful ResourcesMulti-Service Eating Disorder Association (MEDA)
A nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders
National Institute of Mental Health
Information about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
A nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders