A Brief Overview of Eating Disorders
In a society that continues to prize thinness even as Americans become heavier than ever before, almost everyone worries about their weight at least occasionally. People with eating disorders take such concerns to extremes, developing abnormal eating habits that threaten their well-being and even their lives. This question-and-answer fact sheet explains how psychotherapy can help people recover from these increasingly common disorders.
What are the major kinds of eating disorders?
There are three major types of eating disorders.
- People with anorexia nervosa have a distorted body image that causes them to see themselves as overweight even when they’re dangerously thin. Often refusing to eat, exercising compulsively, and developing unusual habits such as refusing to eat in front of others, they lose large amounts of weight and may even starve to death.
- Individuals with bulimia nervosa eat excessive quantities of food, then purge their bodies of the food and calories they fear by using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics, vomiting and/or exercising. Often acting in secrecy, they feel disgusted and ashamed as they binge, yet relieved of tension and negative emotions once their stomachs are empty again.
- Like people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The difference is that binge eaters don’t purge their bodies of excess calories.
It’s important to prevent problematic behaviors from evolving into full-fledged eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia, for example, usually are preceded by very strict dieting and weight loss. Binge eating disorder can begin with occasional binging. Whenever eating behaviors start having a destructive impact on someone’s functioning or self-image, it’s time to see a highly trained mental health professional, such as a licensed psychologist experienced in treating people with eating disorders.
Who suffers from eating disorders?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescent and young women account for 90 percent of cases. But eating disorders aren’t just a problem for the teenage women so often depicted in the media. Older women, men and boys can also develop disorders. And an increasing number of ethnic minorities are falling prey to these devastating illnesses.
People sometimes have eating disorders without their families or friends ever suspecting that they have a problem. Aware that their behavior is abnormal, people with eating disorders may withdraw from social contact, hide their behavior and deny that their eating patterns are problematic. Making an accurate diagnosis requires the involvement of a licensed psychologist or other appropriate mental health expert.
What causes eating disorders?
Certain psychological factors predispose people to developing eating disorders. Dysfunctional families or relationships are one factor. Personality traits also may contribute to these disorders. Most people with eating disorders suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness and intense dissatisfaction with the way they look.
Specific traits are linked to each of the disorders. People with anorexia tend to be perfectionist, for instance, while people with bulimia are often impulsive. Physical factors such as genetics also may play a role in putting people at risk.
A wide range of situations can precipitate eating disorders in susceptible individuals. Family members or friends may repeatedly tease people about their bodies. Individuals may be participating in gymnastics or other sports that emphasize low weight or a certain body image. Negative emotions or traumas such as rape, abuse or the death of a loved one can also trigger disorders. Even a happy event, such as giving birth, can lead to disorders because of the stressful impact of the event on an individual’s new role and body image.