Eating Disorders – Basic Guide

What is an eating disorder?
Severely limiting what you eat, vomiting on purpose, exercising too much, constantly thinking about being overweight and abusing diet pills and laxatives is unhealthy. People who use these methods to lose or control their weight often have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can be divided into two main categories. The first is called anorexia nervosa, which involves limiting what you eat. The second category is called bulimia, which involves eating large amounts of food (binging) followed by an urgent need to vomit (purging).

The combination of overeating without purging and exercising too much to control weight also can be an eating disorder, although it doesn’t exactly fit the categories of anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Certain types of overeating also may require medical treatment.

More than 5 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Most are women, but some men also develop eating disorders. Many young people are powerfully influenced by our culture’s belief that “thin is beautiful” and this can encourage the development of eating disorders. Others develop eating disorders because they feel their weight is the only thing in their lives they can control.

What are the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder?
Some signs of an eating disorder include:

  1. Refusal to maintain weight at a normal weight for height and age
  2. Intense fear of weight gain
  3. Unrealistic or distorted ideas about how one’s body looks
  4. Strange behavior around meals, including rituals
  5. Missing menstrual periods
  6. Withdrawing emotionally from people
  7. Anxiety around meal times
  8. Binging (eating large amounts of food very rapidly)
  9. Purging (getting rid of food by vomiting, excessive exercising or using laxatives or diuretics)

How are eating disorders treated?
People with eating disorders need emotional support and psychotherapy to overcome their condition. Often, nutritional counseling and medications also are used. Treatment always should include seeing a psychiatrist.

Psychotherapy is a series of private talks with a psychiatrist where a person discusses the feelings, thoughts and behavior that cause difficulty. The goal of psychotherapy is to help people understand and master their problems so they can function better. Psychotherapy can help people with eating disorders understand why they limit their food intake or why they binge and/or purge. This understanding can lead to healthier attitudes about food.

Most people with an eating disorder can be helped in an outpatient program. People with severe or life-threatening eating disorders may need to be treated in a hospital.