Eating disorders are one of the unspoken secrets that affect many families. Millions of Americans are afflicted with this disorder every year, and most of them — up to 90 percent — are adolescent and young women. Rarely talked about, an eating disorder can affect up to 5 percent of the population of teenage girls.
Why are teenage and young adult women so susceptible to getting an eating disorder? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is because during this period of time, women are more likely to diet — or try extreme dieting — to try to stay thin. Certain sports (such as gymnastics) and careers (such as modeling) are especially prone to reinforcing the need to keep a fit figure, even if it means purging food or not eating at all.
There are a number of different types of eating disorders:
Eating Disorder Symptoms
Anorexia (also known as anorexia nervosa) is the name for simply starving yourself because you are convinced you are overweight. If you are at least 15 percent under your normal body weight and you are losing weight through not eating, you may be suffering from this disorder.
Learn more: Anorexia Symptoms
Bulimia (also known as bulimia nervosa) is characterized by excessive eating, and then ridding yourself of the food by vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, taking enemas, or exercising obsessively. This behavior of ridding yourself of the calories from consumed food is often called “purging.”
A person who suffers from this disorder can have it go undetected for years, because the person’s body weight will often remain normal. “Binging” and “purging” behavior is often done in secret and with a great deal of shame attached to the behavior. It is also the more common eating disorder.
Learn more: Bulimia Symptoms
Binge eating disorder is different than bulimia nervosa in that there are no accompanying purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting. People with binge eating disorder (BED) often keep eating long after they are full, eat when they’re not hungry, eat very rapidly, and feel disgusted, embarrassed, or self-loathing by their eating behavior.
The fourth kind of eating disorder is called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. People who have this disorder are characterized by avoiding food and eating as little as possible due to a number of factors. These include a lack of interest in food, avoiding it based on the way it smells or tastes, or because they’re afraid of getting sick.
Learn more: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Causes & Diagnosis
Eating disorders are serious problems and need to be diagnosed and treated like any medical disease. If they continue to go untreated, these behaviors can result in future severe medical complications that can be life-threatening.
Although guilt is often a component that a person with an eating disorder lives with, they should not be blamed for having one. While the exact cause of eating disorders is not known, it is thought that these kinds of disorders are likely caused by a complex interaction of social, biological, and psychological factors which bring about the harmful behaviors.
Eating Disorder Treatment
There are two general treatment approaches used for eating disorders. For the most severe types, where a person’s health or life may be in danger, inpatient hospitalization in a facility that specializes in eating disorders may be needed or recommended. Otherwise, when the degree of the eating disorder is less severe but still debilitating, most people are treated in an outpatient setting. Such outpatient treatment will usually include individual therapy, but may also include a group therapy component.
Treatment of eating disorders nearly always includes cognitive-behavioral or group psychotherapy. Medications may also be appropriate and have been found to be effective for some in the treatment of these disorders, when combined with psychotherapy.
If you believe you may be suffering from an eating disorder or know someone who is, please get help. Once properly diagnosed by a mental health professional, such disorders are readily treatable and often cured within a few months’ time.
- An Overview of the Treatment of Eating Disorders
- Treatment of Anorexia
- Treatment of Binge Eating Disorder
- Treatment of Bulimia
Living With & Managing an Eating Disorder
Living with an eating disorder is living every day with the feelings of shame and guilt. Every meal is a potential triggering event or a disaster waiting to happen. The mixed, complicated feelings a person has with eating are experienced daily because everyone needs to eat in order to live.
Eating disorder management tends to focus on a cognitive-behavioral approach put into daily practice. Many find that mindfulness practices also can be helpful, such as taking time to think about each bite of a meal, and pausing between bites. There are dozens of daily techniques a person can put into practice to help manage and keep their condition under control.
Learn more: Weightless: A blog about body image
Learn more: How I Conquered Binge Eating Disorder
Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder
A person struggling with an eating disorder may reach out to a friend or family member for support. Or they may try and hide their eating behaviors from loved ones, not realizing or accepting the seriousness of the problem. There are a number of things a concerned family member or friend can do to help a person with this condition. The following articles will help you better understand the problem and give you some ideas about how you can help them.
- A Family Guide to Eating Disorders, Part 1
- A Family Guide to Eating Disorders, Part 2
- Parents Important in the Prevention, Awareness of Eating Disorders
For most people struggling with an eating disorder, no matter the type, recovery is a lengthy process that requires a lot of effort, a sincere desire to change, and the support of family, friends, and professionals. Some people find it helpful to begin their journey of recovery by talking to their physician, or a close personal friend they trust. Eating disorders are best treated by a mental health specialist who is experienced in such treatment.
More Resources & Stories: Eating Disorders on OC87 Recovery Diaries
Watch Our Recommended Video on Eating Disorders
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml on June 29, 2019.