Eating Disorders

Often developing during teen and young adult years, eating disorders usually involve excessive focusing on weight, body shape and food, which leads to dangerous eating patterns. Eating disorder behaviors can damage the heart, digestive system, bones, teeth and mouth and can prevent the body from getting necessary nutrients. Treatments can help to restore healthy eating habits and sometimes reverse complications caused by eating disorders.

Affecting all races and ethnic groups, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. At least 30 million people of all ages in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. Environmental factors, personality traits and genetics combine to create the risk for developing an eating disorder.

Results of three major studies found that only one-half of people with eating disorders seek help, that certain demographics are less likely than others to seek help, and that people with eating disorders have a five- to six-fold higher risk of attempting suicide. Working with colleagues at Yale University, Tomoko Udo, an assistant professor of Health Policy, Management and Behavior in the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, examined the prevalence of eating disorders in the U.S. since changes were made to diagnostic criteria. The sample of 36,309 adults indicated that only 50% of people with any eating disorder reported seeking help.

The study found that fewer than 30% of people with eating disorders reported consulting with a counselor or psychologist. Additionally, it showed that men and racial minorities were less likely to seek help than were women or whites. “These sex differences may be due to the expectation that eating disorders primarily affect young white women, which may lead to heightened stigma surrounding eating disorders for men or ethnic/racial minorities and discourage seeking treatment,” said Udo. 

Symptoms vary, depending on the type of eating disorder. Characterized by an abnormally low body weight, fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of body weight or shape, anorexia nervosa is potentially life-threatening. When suffering with anorexia, people employ extreme efforts to control their weight, creating harmful effects on health and daily activities.

Bulimia nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is likewise a serious eating disorder.  Bulimia involves episodes of bingeing and purging prompted by feelings of a lack of control over eating. During these episodes, sufferers typically eat large amounts of food over a short time and then try to rid themselves of the extra calories in an unhealthy way. A sense of guilt or shame and an intense fear of weight gain from overeating may force bulimia sufferers to vomit or overexercise to extremes to get rid of the calories.

People with binge-eating disorder regularly eat too much food (binge) and feel a lack of control over their eating. They may eat quickly or eat more food than intended, even when they’re not hungry, and may continue eating even long after they’re uncomfortably full. A binge may be followed by feelings of guilt, disgust or shame over their behavior and the amount of food consumed. Embarrassment can lead to binge eaters eating alone to hide their bingeing. A new round of bingeing usually occurs at least once per week.

If you recognize unhealthy eating behaviors in yourself or a family member, it’s important to seek counseling. Be alert for signs of eating disorders, including an excessive focus on eating, skipping meals, persistent complaints about body weight or appearance, consuming large amounts of high-fat foods or sweets, eating in secret, or tooth enamel erosion due to vomiting.

These red flags may indicate the need for consultation with your provider to diagnose a possible eating disorder and develop a treatment plan. It’s important to adopt healthy eating patterns and maintain a healthy weight in order to create optimal conditions for good mental and physical health. It’s possible, with proper treatment, to reverse damaging consequences of eating disorders.

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