Eating disorders are diseases characterized by severe disturbances in a person’s eating behaviors. People with eating disorders often have an unhealthy obsession with food, body weight, and fitness. It can affect a person’s emotional, mental and physical health.
Learning to recognize the warning signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one is essential to seeking treatment before it becomes life-threatening.
Signs, symptoms and traits
People with eating disorders may initially appear healthy. However, without treatment, they can make a person extremely ill and lead to serious, potentially life-threatening complications. If you or someone you love begins to develop an unhealthy obsession with food, body weight, and fitness, it can be an early sign of an eating disorder.
Although the traits vary depending on the type of eating disorder, here are some general signs and symptoms:
- Profound fear of gaining weight
- Distorted body image
- Extremely restricted diet and excessive exercise
- Extreme slimming (emaciation)
- Unusual behavior around meals
- Chronic sore throat
- Swollen salivary glands
- Worn tooth enamel
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Severe dehydration
Binge eating disorder
- Binge eating episodes (quickly eating large amounts)
- Eat even when you are not hungry and until you are too full
- Eat in secret and feel ashamed or guilty
- Frequent diets, possibly without weight loss
Who is affected by eating disorders?
Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and body types. Although they usually appear during adolescence or early adulthood, they can also develop during childhood or later in life.
Identify and diagnose
In addition to extreme weight loss or weight obsession, people with eating disorders may exhibit physical signs that may be of concern. The following observations may prompt the healthcare team to perform tests to help find the source of the weight loss or the damage caused by the weight loss:
- Thinning bones
- Anemia, extreme fatigue and weakness
- Brittle hair and nails
- Yellowish skin
- Heart problems
- Drop in body temperature
Eating disorders can also lead to serious and life-threatening medical emergencies. Tests that can be done to look for these conditions include:
- Albumin and protein levels
- Complete blood count (FSC)
- Complete Metabolic Panel (CMP)
- Kidney, liver and thyroid function tests
- Urinalysis (urine test)
- Electrocardiogram (ECG), also called an ECG, which checks the electrical activity of the heart
- Bone density test to check for thin bones (osteoporosis)
It is important to note that eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice. These are medical illnesses. While the exact cause of eating disorders is not fully understood, research suggests a combination of factors.
Genetics (heredity), hormones, psychological factors and social circumstances can contribute to eating disorders. Some common risk factors include:
- The puberty
- Mental health problems
- Negative self-image and weight stigma
- Eating problems in early childhood
- Social or cultural ideas about health and beauty
- Abuse or bullying
Binge eating disorder (BID)
Binge eating is when a person eats a large amount of food in a short period of time. While many people overeat occasionally, binge eating is frequent and continuous, at least once a week for three months. Those with binge eating disorder feel like they can’t control what or how much they eat. They eat when they are not so hungry that they are uncomfortable.
The most common eating disorder
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It is more common in people with severe obesity. However, it can affect a person with any type of body.
Bulimia nervosa (BN)
People with bulimia nervosa use strategies after binge eating to avoid gaining weight. These strategies include:
The difference between bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder is that people with binge eating disorder may try these strategies occasionally, but this is not their usual pattern.
Anorexia nervosa (AN)
People with anorexia nervosa have a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight. People with this disorder are obsessed with their food intake and consider themselves overweight even though they are underweight. They may diet or exercise excessively and lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height. It is important to note that it can be diagnosed in all body sizes.
Anorexia nervosa statistics
Anorexia is more common in women, but can also be diagnosed in men. The number of women aged 15 to 19 diagnosed with anorexia nervosa has increased every 10 years since 1930.
Other specified eating or eating disorder (OSFED)
The OSFED category includes people with a severe eating disorder but who do not meet the strict diagnostic criteria for binge eating, anorexia nervosa, or bulimia nervosa.
Avoiding and restrictive dietary intake disorder (ARFID)
Avoiding Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) involves restricted food intake that results in nutrition and energy depletion. It is different from other disorders such as anorexia nervosa because common body image disturbances are not present.
Orthorexia nervosa occurs when a person has an obsession with healthy eating that causes restrictive eating behaviors. They often restrict themselves too much and don’t get enough nutrition. This can lead to malnutrition, health problems and poor quality of life.
Nocturnal feeding syndrome
Night feeding syndrome involves recurring episodes of night feeding or binge eating after an evening meal.
People with bleeding disorders exhibit recurring purging behavior to influence their weight or shape in the absence of binge eating.
For people with eating disorders, seeking help and getting treatment as soon as possible is essential to prevent mental and physical health complications. Treatment goals typically include reduction in excessive exercise, restrictive eating behaviors, binge eating, and purging. The goal is to restore adequate nutrition and a healthy weight, and to treat any secondary health problems that the disease may have caused.
Treatment plans can include a combination of the following approaches:
Self-help is flexible and cost-effective treatment that can be a great place to start and can include:
- Read personal development books
- Listen to podcasts
- Learn about diet
This treatment is not recommended for people who are severely underweight or who have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. However, it is a useful tool in conjunction with professional treatment.
The healthcare team can monitor nutrition, weight, and lab work through direct observation and patient diaries.
Nutritional counseling takes place with a dietitian specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. Dietitians are an integral part of the health care team and provide education on nutrients and the appropriate amounts of foods based on a person’s size, age, gender, circumstances and needs. .
The therapy can be used alone or in combination with other treatments and includes the following options:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a great tool to help patients change their thoughts and behaviors about food and their bodies.
- Family Based Treatment (FBT): In this treatment model, the family is seen as part of the solution to eating disorders.
- Support groups: It’s a great way for patients and families to listen and share with those who understand their struggles.
Outpatient medical care
The healthcare team will work as a group to provide testing, monitoring, counseling and treatment outside of a hospital setting. This may include prescribing medications to treat eating disorders and the accompanying anxiety or depression.
Inpatient medical care
A person with serious or life-threatening health complications may need to be hospitalized. These complications include:
- Severe dehydration
- Significant decrease in blood pressure or pulse
- Severe depression or suicidal thoughts (thinking about suicide)
- Weight loss despite treatment
- Weighing less than 75% of their ideal body weight
Treat severe malnutrition
With severe and life-threatening malnutrition, a person may need to be fed through a vein or tube directly into their stomach.
Choosing to prioritize yourself in seeking treatment for an eating disorder can be difficult to stir up feelings. Identifying the early signs, recognizing the problem, and getting help are the first steps in breaking old harmful habits that are negatively impacting your health. Congratulate yourself on all of your milestones and remember that recovery is very much possible.
For those caring for a loved one with an eating disorder, you are the key to helping them overcome this barrier. Remember to take care of yourself as well and seek help when you need it. Your loved one may be in denial or feeling out of control, ashamed or guilty. In that case, finding a mental health therapist and support group can be helpful for everyone involved.
A word from Verywell
Living with an eating disorder can feel overwhelming and isolating. While it can be difficult to ask for help, contacting a loved one or a resource like NEDA can make all the difference. The road to recovery is paved with those who care.