What are eating disorders? 

Eating disorders are mental disorders that can make people obsess about food and their bodies. People may focus on their body image to the extent that they develop eating or exercising habits that can be fatal. Approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have an eating disorder or have had one. There are many eating disorders that psychologists and doctors have identified. The symptoms vary between different disorders. These conditions can develop at any age for any gender.

Causes of eating disorders

Researchers and doctors don't know the exact causes of eating disorders. They think these conditions might arise from a combination of social, environmental and biological factors. These might include things like:

  • Genetics
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hormone changes
  • Peer pressure to look thin
  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • A career that focuses on weight or certain body types

Risk factors for eating disorders

There are many things that contribute to the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders can run in the family. Cultural stress, such as discrimination and media images, can make eating disorders worse. If you tend to be a perfectionist, you're also at a higher risk for having an eating disorder.

Symptoms of eating disorders

Not everyone with an eating disorder show signs of specific disorders. Common eating disorders include the following:

Bulimia nervosa: happens when people follow a cycle of binging and purging. They eat lots of food in an uncontrollable way. Then they purge the food, usually by vomiting, to avoid weight gain.

Rumination disorder: happens when people regurgitate food they already swallowed. They chew it again and swallow or spit it out.

Binge eating disorder: happens when people eat large amounts of food quickly. They often do this in secret. They also don't purge.

People with anorexia nervosa are underweight. They might follow very restricted eating patterns and have poor body image.

Pica: People with this condition crave non-food items like soap or dirt. 

You don't have to be underweight or overweight to have an eating disorder. Other symptoms include:

  • Avoiding certain foods to the point of malnutrition
  • Poor and often very inaccurate body image
  • Distress when thinking about eating

Diagnosis of eating disorders

People often have shame about their eating disorders. It can take intervention from a loved one before some people are willing to go to a doctor to discuss having an eating disorder. To diagnose an eating disorder, doctors first do a physical exam. This helps them see if you're medically stable. Then they may want you to do psychological tests to see how your mind is working. These help the doctor create a final diagnosis. Diagnosis is the first step of an important process to change behaviors and thought patterns. This can help you move past the disorder and get healthy. An eating disorder may cause death without treatment.

Treatments for eating disorders

You may need intensive therapy with a trained mental health counselor. They can help you learn new ways to think about your disorder. You might also relearn proper eating habits. A dietician can help you with this. You might also work with other therapists, such as yoga or art instructors. Their programs can help you regain control over your relationship with food and your body.

If your eating disorder is severe, you might get inpatient treatment. You'll live in a treatment facility for some time while you learn to improve your eating habits. Doctors can also monitor you to make sure you're getting healthier. 

Doctors can also prescribe medications. These may help change your thoughts around your eating disorder. Common medications include antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers.

The first step in treatment of an eating disorder is to become medically and mentally stable. Some people with eating disorders are at risk for suicide. People with these conditions often require intensive treatment. It helps if you have a large support system of friends, family members and professionals to rely on.

Recovery from eating disorders

Recovery from eating disorders takes time, but it's possible. As your body begins to heal, it's important to learn healthy nutritional habits and food choices. You'll also want to create new habits in how you eat. You might need to work with your therapist for a few years. This helps you fully address the underlying and continued mental health issues related to eating disorders.

Relapse is very common. This means the condition may not affect you for a while, but it can come back. Work with your doctor to establish a plan. This can help you prevent a relapse before it happens.