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An eating disorder actually includes a range of conditions that involve an obsession with food, weight and appearance to the degree that a person’s health, relationships and daily activities are negatively affected.
While commonly affecting young women, eating disorders are widespread and can impact people of all ages and sexes. Whether a person restricts food intake, binge-eats, binges and purges, abuses laxatives, compulsively overeats or excessively exercises, these behaviors usually are symptoms and not the fundamental problem. They often develop as a way of coping with emotional pain, conflicts related to separation, low self-esteem, depression, stress or trauma.
There are 3 generally accepted types of eating disorders, each having specific symptoms and corresponding treatment methods. They are:
Eating disorders are illnesses
Eating disorders involve physiological changes associated with food restricting, binge eating, purging, and fluctuations in weight. They also involve a number of emotional and cognitive changes that affect the way a person perceives and experiences his or her body.
An eating disorder is not a diet, a sign of personal weakness, or a problem that will go away by itself. An eating disorder requires professional attention.
- Anorexia nervosa – People who have anorexia develop unusual eating habits such as avoiding food and meals, picking out a few foods and eating them in small amounts, weighing their food, and counting the calories of everything they eat. Also, they may exercise excessively.
- Bulimia nervosa – People who have bulimia eat an excessive amount of food in a single episode and almost immediately make themselves vomit or use laxatives or diuretics (water pills) to get rid of the food in their bodies. This behavior often is referred to as the “binge/purge” cycle. Like people with anorexia, people with bulimia have an intense fear of gaining weight.
- Binge-eating disorder – People with this recently recognized disorder have frequent episodes of compulsive overeating, but unlike those with bulimia, they do not purge their bodies of food (NIMH, 2002). During these food binges, they often eat alone and very quickly, regardless of whether they feel hungry or full. They often feel shame or guilt over their actions. Unlike anorexia and bulimia, binge-eating disorder occurs almost as often in men as in women (National Eating Disorders Association, 2002).
What medical problems can arise as a result of eating disorders?
- Anorexia nervosa – Anorexia can slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure, increasing the chance of heart failure. Those who use drugs to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements, or urination are also at high risk for heart failure. Starvation can also lead to heart failure, as well as damage the brain. Anorexia may also cause hair and nails to grow brittle. Skin may dry out, become yellow, and develop a covering of soft hair called lanugo. Mild anemia, swollen joints, reduced muscle mass, and light-headedness also commonly occur as a consequence of this eating disorder. Severe cases of anorexia can lead to brittle bones that break easily as a result of calcium loss.
- Bulimia nervosa – The acid in vomit can wear down the outer layer of the teeth, inflame and damage the esophagus (a tube in the throat through which food passes to the stomach), and enlarge the glands near the cheeks (giving the appearance of swollen cheeks). Damage to the stomach can also occur from frequent vomiting. Irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and death can occur from chemical imbalances and the loss of important minerals such as potassium. Peptic ulcers, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, which is a large gland that aids digestion), and long-term constipation are also consequences of bulimia.
- Binge-eating disorder – Binge-eating disorder can cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Other effects of binge-eating disorder include fatigue, joint pain, Type II diabetes, gallbladder disease, and heart disease.