Eating disorders are a group of conditions defined by abnormal eating habits – eating either not enough or too much food. They range from eating too much at one time, known as Binge Eating, to eating very little, known as Anorexia. People with eating disorders usually also have other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression or substance abuse. Excessive concern about weight and body image or shape is also a common feature of these illnesses.
Eating disorders affect many more women than men and usually begin in the teen years or young adulthood although they can begin in childhood or later in life. For reasons that are not clearly understood, they are increasing in most parts of the world. There are three common forms: binge eating, anorexia and bulimia, and one called “eating disorder not otherwise specified” where the symptoms do not exactly fit any of the other three disorders. All these are real medical illnesses that cause serious physical problems and can sometimes even be fatal. In fact, studies have shown that people with anorexia nervosa are 18 times more likely to die prematurely.
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While eating disorders are normally identified through simple observation, such as people eating massive amounts of food or being extremely thin, it is not always easy to determine the underlying causes. Extreme weight loss can be caused by conditions ranging from cancer to anorexia, just as obesity can be caused by various disorders. So a thorough physical as well as a psychological evaluation is important in diagnosing eating disorders.
Symptoms that are associated with anorexia include:
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- Excessive concern with their body shape and weight
- Having an eating disorder as an infant or as a child
- Wanting to be "perfect"
- Having a distorted body image – thinking they are fat even though they are too thin
- Fear of becoming fat or gaining weight, even though they are already underweight
- Amenorrhea – not having a menstrual period for several months
Typically, eating disorders are best treated by addressing the underlying psychological causes as well as any physical issues. Most eating disorders are caused by the presence of a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression or substance abuse. By addressing these underlying causes, the eating disorder can be helped. Counseling or talk therapy is a mainstay of treatment although in some cases medications may also be helpful.
Talk therapy and biofeedback training along with behavioral, individual, family, or group therapy can help people who are binge eaters. Binge eating may be treated with antidepressants if it occurs along with depression or anxiety.
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