A State of Illinois Licensed Psychological Association (License #098.000088)

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Eating Disorders

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders involve serious disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating, as well as feelings of distress or extreme concern about body shape or weight. In a society that continues to prize thinness even as Americans become heavier than ever before, almost everyone worries about their weight at least occasionally. People with eating disorders take such concerns to extremes, developing abnormal eating habits that threaten their well-being and even their lives.

Eating disorders are not due to a failure of will or behavior. They are real, treatable emotional illnesses in which certain maladaptive patterns of eating take on a life of their own. Fortunately, there are many psychological techniques that can help people recover from these increasingly common disorders.

What Are The Types of Eating Disorders?

The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders frequently develop during adolescence or early adulthood, but some reports indicate their onset can occur during childhood or later in adulthood.

Anorexia Nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa have a distorted body image that causes them to see themselves as overweight even when they are dangerously thin. Often refusing to eat, exercising compulsively, and developing habits such as refusing to eat in front of others, they lose large amounts of weight and may even starve to death.

Bulimia Nervosa. Individuals with bulimia nervosa eat excessive quantities of food, and then purge their bodies of the food and calories by using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics, vomiting and/or exercising. Often acting in secrecy, they feel disgusted and ashamed as they binge, yet relieved of tension and negative emotions once their stomachs are empty again.

Binge-Eating Disorder. Like people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The difference is that binge eaters don't purge their bodies of excess calories.

What Are The Symptoms of Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa.Resistance to maintaining body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight. Disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight. Infrequent or absent menstrual periods (in females who have reached puberty).

Bulimia Nervosa. Recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within a discrete period of time and by a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode. Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or medications that cause vomiting, fasting; or excessive exercise. The binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors both occur, on average, at least twice a week for 3 months. Self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight.

Binge-Eating Disorder. Recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within a discrete period of time and by a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode. The binge-eating episodes are associated with at least 3 of the following: eating much more rapidly than normal; eating until feeling uncomfortably full; eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating; feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
Marked distress about the binge-eating behavior. The binge eating occurs, on average, at least 2 days a week for 6 months. The binge eating is not associated with the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging, fasting, excessive exercise).

Why Is It Important To Seek Treatment?

Eating disorders can be treated. Healthy weight and healthy eating attitudes and behaviors can be restored. The sooner these disorders are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be. Because of their complexity, severe eating disorders often require a comprehensive treatment plan involving medical care and monitoring, psychosocial interventions, nutritional counseling and, when appropriate, medication management. Eating disorders of mild or moderate severity may be successfully treated with psychological interventions alone.

Eating disorders frequently co-occur with other disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. In addition, people who suffer from eating disorders can experience a wide range of physical health complications, including serious heart conditions and kidney failure which may lead to death. Recognition of eating disorders as real and treatable diseases, therefore, is critically important.

It's important to prevent problematic behaviors from evolving into full-fledged eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia, for example, usually are preceded by very strict dieting and weight loss. Binge eating disorder can begin with occasional binging. Whenever eating behaviors start having a destructive impact on someone's functioning or self-image, it's time to see a highly trained mental health professional, such as a licensed psychologist experienced in treating people with eating disorders.

What Can You Do Now?

1. Make an appointment with one of our clinicians for a comprehensive professional assessment and to put together a treatment plan for treating the disorder.
2. Make an appointment with your physician to rule out any physical cause of your eating disorder.

Additional Information: American Psychological Association, National Institute of Mental Health.

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