According to statistics provided by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), there are up to 24 million people in the United States who suffer from eating disorders. This includes people of all ages and both genders and can result in premature death or other serious health problems.

Although common perceptions regarding eating disorders involve a belief that the afflicted person has a desire to be thin, more often than not, there are other underlying causes behind an eating disorder.

Several factors can cause the onset of an eating disorder, or turn negative eating habits into a full-blown condition. These causes can include certain personality traits and psychological factors, high-stress events, abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and difficult family life.

Types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa. This disorder is characterized by a distorted body image. Individuals may perceive themselves to be overweight even when they are extremely thin. Eating very little or refusing to eat at all is a symptom of anorexia. It also may involve frequent exercise and being unwilling to eat in front of others.
  • Binge eating disorder.Binge eating involves regular episodes of out-of-control eating, which may result in weight gain from increased calorie consumption.
  • Bulimia nervosa.Individuals with this condition usually will overeat and then purge their bodies of the food and associated calories. They achieve this by vomiting, exercising, or by using laxatives and diuretics.
  • Eating disorders not otherwise specified.These are food-related disorders that do not fall into any of the above categories or meet all of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)-5 criteria for these illnesses.

Several conditions usually are associated with eating disorders. These coexisting factors can include mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, or depression. Other contributing issues consist of cultural or family input, abuse, PTSD or other high-stress life events. Examples of these factors can be a cultural or family environment that promotes unhealthy eating habits, abuse experienced as a child or adult, or assault or death of a loved one.

In spite of the fact that professional help typically is required to help someone with an eating disorder, it is estimated that only 10 percent of people with these disorders actually receive treatment. Out of the people who receive treatment, fewer than half will get treated at a facility that specializes in eating disorders.

Although women are more likely to develop an eating disorder, men are less likely to seek help. This is a problem because if an eating disorder is left untreated, it can cause many adverse health issues. These include heart problems, acid reflux, brain damage, issues associated with obesity and, in extreme cases, death.

Once an eating disorder takes hold, it can start a cycle of unhealthy behavior which makes it even more important to seek treatment as soon as possible. With the help and support of trained professionals, or a residential treatment program, the likelihood of successfully treating an eating disorder is significantly increased.

The causes of eating disorders are not completely understood and can vary for each individual. Working to treat core issues is an essential factor in the overall treatment process. An eating disorder can result as a survival mechanism to help a person cope with other experiences or influences and can be extremely difficult to treat without professional help.

Finally, an eating disorder is an illness that is receptive to treatment and should be brought to the attention of a health care professional.