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Eating Disorder Awareness

What is an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are a group of serious conditions in which you're so preoccupied with food and weight that you can often focus on little else. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

Eating disorders can cause serious physical problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. Most people with eating disorders are females, but males can also have eating disorders. An exception is binge-eating disorder, which appears to affect almost as many males as females.

Treatments for eating disorders usually involve psychotherapy, nutrition education, family counseling, medications and hospitalization.

Types of eating disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

When you have anorexia nervosa (an-o-REK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh), you're obsessed with food and being thin, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation.

Anorexia signs and symptoms may include:

  • Refusing to eat and denying hunger
  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • Negative or distorted self-image
  • Excessively exercising
  • Flat mood or lack of emotion
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thin appearance
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Soft, downy hair present on the body (lanugo)
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dry skin
  • Frequently being cold
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration

From MayoCinic.com

Bulimia nervosa

When you have bulimia, you have episodes of bingeing and purging. During these episodes, you typically eat a large amount of food in a short duration and then try to rid yourself of the extra calories by vomiting or excessive exercise. You actually may be at a normal weight or even a bit overweight.

Bulimia signs and symptoms may include:

  • Eating until the point of discomfort or pain, often with high-fat or sweet foods
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Laxative use
  • Excessively exercising
  • Unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • Having a distorted, excessively negative body image
  • Going to the bathroom after eating or during meals
  • Feeling that you can't control your eating behavior
  • Abnormal bowel functioning
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Swollen salivary glands in the cheeks
  • Sores in the throat and mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sores, scars or calluses on the knuckles or hands
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • Constant dieting or fasting
  • Possibly, drug or alcohol abuse

From MayoCinic.com

Binge-eating disorder

When you have binge-eating disorder, you regularly eat excessive amounts of food (binge). You may eat when you're not hungry and continue eating even long after you're uncomfortably full. After a binge, you may try to diet or eat normal meals, triggering a new round of bingeing. You may be a normal weight, overweight or obese.

Symptoms of binge-eating disorder may include:

  • Eating to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Eating much more food during a binge episode than during a normal meal or snack
  • Eating faster during binge episodes
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Frequently eating alone
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted or upset over the amount eaten

From MayoCinic.com

Causes of eating disorders

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. As with other mental illnesses, there may be many causes. Possible causes of eating disorders include:

Biology - There may be genes that make certain people more vulnerable to developing eating disorders. People with first-degree relatives — siblings or parents — with an eating disorder may be more likely to develop an eating disorder too, suggesting a possible genetic link. In addition, there's some evidence that serotonin, a naturally occurring brain chemical, may influence eating behaviors.

Psychological and emotional health - People with eating disorders may have psychological and emotional problems that contribute to the disorder. They may have low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behavior, anger management difficulties, family conflicts and troubled relationships.

Society - The modern Western cultural environment often cultivates and reinforces a desire for thinness. Success and worth are often equated with being thin in popular culture. Peer pressure and what people see in the media may fuel this desire to be thin, particularly among young girls.

Eating disorders are illnesses, not choices.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that arise from a combination of long-standing behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, biological and social factors. As our natural body size and shape is largely determined by genetics, fighting your natural size and shape can lead to unhealthy dieting practices, poor body image and decreased self-esteem. While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are about much more than food.

Recent research has shown that genetic factors create vulnerabilities (anxiety, obsessions, perfectionism) that place individuals at risk  for acting on cultural pressures and messages and triggering behaviors such as dieting or obsessive exercise. In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Approximately 15 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder. Because of the secrecy and shame associated with eating disorders, it is very likely that many more go unreported.

Prevention, education and access to care are critical

There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 years old in each decade since 1930; over one person’s lifetime, at least 50,000 individuals will die as a direct result of eating disorders. In the United States, we are inundated with messages telling us that to be a happy, valued person, we must be thin and fit our culture’s impossible beauty standards. Did you know that 80% of all ten year olds are afraid of being fat?

The average age of sufferers is dropping rapidly (as young as elementary school), with peak onset among girls ages 11-13. As a culture, it is time for all communities to talk about eating disorders, address their causes, advocate for access to treatment and take preventative action. You can make a difference: do just one thing to initiate awareness, education and discussion about eating disorders in you community. If we all do something, we’ll have a huge impact!

Help is available, and recovery is possible

While eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses, there is help available and recovery really is possible. It is important for those affected to remember that they are not alone in their struggle; others have recovered and are now living healthy fulfilling lives. Let the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) be a part of your network of support.

NEDA has information and resources available via their website and helpline.

NEDA Helpline: 800 931-2237.

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