Eating disorders are mental health conditions that are characterized by distorted thought processes about one’s body image, shape, and/or weight that ultimately impacts the manners in which a person consumes food. Eating disorders are serious conditions that, if left untreated, can be lethal. Known to affect adolescents and adults of both genders and all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, the three most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa, which is often referred to simply as anorexia, is characterized by significantly restricted intake of food, a strong fear of gaining weight and/or becoming fat, and a distorted perception of one’s body shape and weight. Individuals who have anorexia may engage in highly restrictive diets or may refuse to eat altogether, which will lead to emaciation and a range of potentially harmful physical repercussions. Even though their food intake is profoundly limited, some people who have anorexia may also engage in purging behaviors, such as taking laxatives or forcing themselves to vomit. Many experts consider anorexia nervosa to be the deadliest of all mental health disorders.
Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, involves two distinct behaviors: recurring episodes of binge-eating and recurring compensatory behaviors. Binge-eating episodes involve consuming extremely large amounts of food during one meal or within a two-hour period of eating. During binge-eating episodes, sufferers may feel that they have lost control of the ability to stop eating or to limit the amount of food that they are ingesting. Following these binges, individuals who have bulimia will attempt to prevent resultant weight gain by engaging in compensatory behaviors, such as forcing themselves to vomit, misusing laxatives or similar medications, or exercising excessively.
Binge-eating disorder is sometimes also referred to BED or compulsive overeating. This disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food at a given time, often eating with great rapidity and feeling incapable of controlling one’s food intake while in the midst of a binge. Unlike those who are suffering from bulimia, though, individuals who have binge-eating disorder do not engage in compensatory or purging behaviors. Individuals who have binge-eating disorder are at an increased risk for also struggling with becoming overweight and/or obese.
All types of eating disorders are serious problems that demand professional treatment. Though eating disorders are complex conditions that can be difficult to treat, individuals who struggle with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and other types of eating disorders can overcome their problems with effective comprehensive professional treatment.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), as many as 24 million Americans struggle with one of the three eating disorders described on this page. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of people who have an eating disorder receive treatment for their disorder, and only about 35 percent of those who receive treatment are treated at a program or facility that specializes in eating disorders. About eight of every 10 people who suffer from an eating disorder begin to exhibit symptoms of their disorder prior to age 20.
About 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men will develop anorexia nervosa. Experts estimate that about 4 percent of people who develop anorexia nervosa will die as a result of complications related to this disorder. No other mental health disorder has a fatality rate as high as anorexia does. Bulimia affects about 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men. Binge-eating disorder is the most common form of eating disorder, affecting about 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that between 2.5 percent and 3 percent of adolescents ages 13 to 18 exhibit symptoms that meet the criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
Causes and Risk Factors for Eating Disorders
Decades of research strongly suggests that eating disorders may develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The following are among the causes and risk factors that have been identified as being likely to increase a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder:
Genetics: Individuals whose parents or siblings have struggled with an eating disorder are at an increased risk for developing a similar condition, which suggests that it is possible to be genetically predisposed to struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. Also, having a family history of mental illness can increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. In recent years, researchers have identified abnormalities in brain chemistry that may impair a person’s ability to regulate or control appetite, hunger, digestion, and food intake.
Environmental: Individuals who are exposed to disordered eating behaviors, placed on restrictive diets, or subjected to body shaming during childhood may be at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. Also, people who have a history of being assaulted, abused, or otherwise violently victimized either during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood may have a heightened likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Other forms of trauma, such as verbal harassment or the loss of a loved one through separation or death, can lead to the development of an eating disorder, as can chronic exposure to stress.
- Gender (women are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than men are)
- Age (most eating disorders develop among adolescents and young adults)
- Family history of eating disorders
- Family history of mental illness
- Personal history of mental illness
- Exposure to trauma
- Exposure to stress
- Being teased or harassed because of weight or body shape
- Ineffective coping skills
- Low self-esteem
- Poor self-image
- Feelings of personal inadequacy
- Feeling that one lacks control over one’s life
- Substance abuse and addiction
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Given the various types of eating disorders, and the fact that each type of eating disorder may manifest a variety of symptoms, there are many signs and symptoms that indicate the presence of an eating disorder. Individuals who exhibit several of the following symptoms may be struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder:
- Eating large quantities of food
- Eating extremely quickly
- Eating alone
- Lying or being otherwise deceptive about how much or how often one eats
- Claiming that one is not hungry or has already eaten
- Adhering to an extremely restricted list of foods that one will eat
- Frequently weighing oneself and/or looking at oneself in the mirror
- Social isolation
- Making disparaging weight-related remarks about oneself and/or others
- Engaging in rituals before, during, and/or after one eats
- Using enemas or laxatives without an apparent medical purpose
- Exercising excessively
- Repeatedly trying and failing to control one’s weight via fad or extreme diets
- Wearing baggy clothing to hide one’s body shape
- Dramatic weight gain
- Significant weight loss
- Irregular heart rate
- Hypertension or hypotension
- Extreme exhaustion and fatigue
- Thinning hair and hair loss
- Esophageal rupture
- Constipation and/or irregular bowel movements
- Absent or irregular menstruation
- Extreme sensitivity to cold
- Lanugo (development of fine downy hair all over one’s body)
- Suicidal ideation
- Poor decision-making
- Inability to concentrate
- Feeling guilt and/or shame
- Distorted body perception
- Low self-esteem
- Poor self-worth
- Dramatic mood swings
- Agitation and irritability
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
Effects of Eating Disorders
It is difficult to overstate the potential devastation that can occur from an untreated eating disorder. Individuals who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder are at a significant risk for a host of profoundly negative physical, mental, emotional, and social ramifications, including the following:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Renal failure
- Heart disease
- Heart failure
- Gall bladder damage
- Sexual dysfunction
- Inability to conceive or bear children
- Digestive distress
- Strained, damaged, or ruined interpersonal relationships
- Family discord, possibly leading to separation and divorce
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Substandard performance at work or in school
- Suicidal ideation
- Suicide attempts
Many people who develop an eating disorder also struggle with one or more other mental health issues. The following are among the co-occurring disorders that are most likely to be experienced by individuals who have anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Depressive disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Substance use disorders
Treatment for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are dangerous and complex diseases that resist simple solutions or superficial interventions. With sufferers at great risk for experiencing significant damage, including death, it is essential that eating disorders are treated by experienced professionals who are capable of providing effective comprehensive care. In many cases, individuals who are suffering with an eating disorder are best served by being treated within a residential program, such as those offered Harmony Point Treatment Centers.
When a person who has been struggling with an eating disorder enters residential treatment at Harmony Point Treatment Centers, he or she is immediately removed from the environmental stressors that may have contributed to the development or exacerbated the symptoms of the disorder. The stresses, pressures, and triggers that the person may have been experiencing at home, in school, or at work are no longer a persistent presence once the afflicted individual has entered the structured and supportive atmosphere of the residential program.
Harmony Point Treatment Centers also provide an ideal environment for identifying and addressing all of the underlying issues and co-occurring disorders that may have led to or been impacted by the disordered eating. In a nurturing therapeutic environment, individuals who have been dealing with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder have the opportunity to be cared for by multidisciplinary teams of experienced professionals who can provide comprehensive care in a highly personalized manner. Depending upon the needs of the individual patient and the symptoms of the specific disorder or disorders that the patient is experiencing, treatment at Harmony Point Treatment Centers may involve a range of age- and gender-appropriate activities, including cognitive and behavioral therapies, nutritional counseling, psychoeducational groups, recreational therapeutic activities, and similar experiences.
Ultimately, when an adolescent or adult chooses to heal at Harmony Point Treatment Centers, he or she will be provided with the life-affirming opportunity to develop the skills and strategies that will promote long-term recovery and allow him or her to achieve a healthier and happier future.