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.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where people do unhealthy things to lose weight even though they are already thin. Persons who are anorexic usually have an extreme fear of gaining weight and either exercise or diet too much (or both) in order to lose even more weight. They have a distorted body image and see themselves as overweight when they are in fact extremely underweight. People with anorexia are obsessed with food, eating and weight, spending a lot of time controlling exactly what they eat and weighing themselves repeatedly. Some people with anorexia are also bulemic (see below).
The causes of anorexia are not well understood but many different factors are usually involved, such as hormones, genetics and social attitudes towards weight. Anorexia usually starts during the teenage years and is most commonly seen in females who have high academic, personal or family goals. Anorexia may occur just for a brief period of time or may become a chronic, relapsing disorder.
Bulimia is a condition where people binge on food or overeat on a regular basis and feel a lack of control over this behavior. People with bulimia then engage in behaviors called purging, like abusing laxatives or forcing themselves to vomit after eating, in an effort to keep themselves from gaining weight. They may also use diuretics (water pills) and enemas to lose weight. Usually this purging behavior is done secretly as the person feels guilty or is ashamed of it. The eating binges and purging may occur several times a week or several times a day. Some people who are bulimic are also anorexic, but most people with bulemia maintain a normal weight.
Bulimia is most common in younger women and, unlike anorexics, they are usually aware of their abnormal eating patterns. But, like the person with anorexia, they are usually obsessively trying to lose weight and are intensely preoccupied with their body image.
The exact causes of bulimia are unknown, but genetics, psychology, traumatic experiences, society’s expectations and other mental illnesses may play a role.
Binge eating refers to eating a lot more food than normal within a short span of time, two or more times per week. Binge eating is similar to bulemia but does not include the vomiting and purging behaviors so usually does lead to obesity. People with this condition feel unable to control the amount that they eat at one time and ashamed and guilty about their eating behaviors. Binge eaters may eat 5,000 or more calories in a single sitting, overeat at every meal, and/or eat a lot of snacks in addition to large meals throughout the day. Binge eating tends to happen more commonly during a strict diet or immediately afterwards.
This simple questionnaire is designed to help you determine if you have symptoms of an eating disorder and could benefit from professional help.