Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that no one chooses to develop. Learn about eating disorder symptoms and treatment options.

Eating disorders are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses

This year, February 26th marks the beginning of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Chances are, you may know someone who has or will develop an eating disorder during his or her lifetime. It is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Causes of eating disorders

No one knows for certain what causes an eating disorder. Researchers often point to a combination of biological, socio-cultural, psychological and environmental factors that come together to trigger the onset of an eating disorder. One thing we do know is eating disorders are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that no one chooses to develop.  

Although they are often first recognized in adolescence, eating disorders can develop at any time in a person’s life. The severity of an eating disorder can range from mild to severe. According to a 2012 study, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Some of the most serious consequences of untreated eating disorders include heart failure and suicide.  

Symptoms of eating disorders

Three of the more common types of eating disorders include:

Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a preoccupation with food or calorie intake, difficulty keeping a healthy body weight, distorted body image, and an intense fear of weight gain.

Binge-Eating Disorder. A person who suffers from binge-eating disorder eats unusually large amounts of food in a short time period (such as 2 hours) and feels a lack of control while bingeing. They may eat even when not hungry, eat in secret, and/or feel ashamed of their eating. 

Bulimia Nervosa. Someone with bulimia nervosa experiences frequent episodes of binge-eating followed by purging, often by vomiting or by using laxatives. They may also exercise excessively to compensate for bingeing. There is often a preoccupation with body image. 

Treating eating disorders

The road to recovery from an eating disorder can be long and difficult. While there is no cure for eating disorders, there are treatment options that can help. Talk therapy can be effective for all types of eating disorders. It should focus on the biological, psychological, interpersonal and cultural factors that lead to the eating disorder. For adolescents with anorexia nervosa, family based therapy can be helpful. 

There are also FDA-approved medications for treating bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder that can be used in addition to therapy. Sometimes, hospitalization may be necessary when eating disorder symptoms are severe. Intensive outpatient and residential programs are also available.  

The sooner an eating disorder is recognized and treated, the greater the chance of a full recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with eating disorder symptoms, contact the National Eating Disorder Association at (800) 931-2237.

Takesha Cooper, MD, MS is a board certified psychiatrist with UCR Health and is fellowship-trained in child and adolescent psychiatry.

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