The term “eating disorder” refers to serious and sometimes life-threatening mental health problems that cause unusual eating behaviors.

There are several types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa (or simply anorexia) is an eating disorder in which people intentionally starve themselves. It causes extreme weight loss.

Bulimia nervosa (usually referred to as bulimia) is defined as uncontrolled episodes of overeating (bingeing) that are usually followed by purging (self-induced vomiting), misuse of laxatives, enemas, or medications to control weight.

Binge eating disorder is like bulimia nervosa, but its sufferers do not purge their bodies of the excess food.

Cause

The exact cause of eating disorders is not known. Social attitudes toward body appearance, family influences, genetics, and neurochemical and developmental factors are considered possible contributors.

Risk Factors

Eating disorders tend to run in families. Female relatives are the most often affected. Most victims of an eating disorder are adolescent and young adult women. But these illnesses can strike men and older women. Anorexia and bulimia are found most often in Caucasians. But these illnesses also affect African Americans and other races. People pursuing professions or activities that stress thinness—such as modeling, dancing, gymnastics, wrestling, and long-distance running—also have a higher risk for these disorders.

Diagnosis

Parents, family members, spouses, teachers, coaches, and instructors may be able to identify an individual with an eating disorder. However, many people with such a disorder initially keep their illness very private and hidden. To diagnosis the condition, a doctor uses clinical observations of the person's behavior, psychological testing, and a detailed history of the individual's behavior from those familiar with the person.

Medical Complications

An eating disorder can affect nearly every organ system in the body, and it can be fatal. That’s why early diagnosis and treatment is so important. Medical complications that may result from an eating disorder include cardiovascular problems (such as an irregular heartbeat or high or low blood pressure), irregular menstrual periods, anemia, gastrointestinal problems, kidney problems, and osteoporosis. Many people with eating disorders also appear to suffer from depression.

Treatment

An eating disorder is usually treated with a combination of individual therapy, family therapy, behavior changes, and nutritional rehabilitation. Medication such as antidepressants may be helpful if the person is also depressed. Families play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Structured preventive programs can address risk factors for an eating disorder and reduce the risk for developing abnormal eating habits. The most successful programs address healthy weight control skills, self-esteem, and satisfaction with body image. Encouraging healthy eating habits and realistic attitudes toward weight and diet may also be helpful. Early detection, diagnosis, and intervention can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by people with an eating disorder.

Medical Reviewer: Alice Chang, M.D. Last Annual Review Date: 2010-02-12T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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