Eating Disorders

by Marianne Cook, LICSW

An eating disorder means that a person experiences severe and prolonged disturbances in eating behavior. This is most often accompanied by extreme distress about body image. The three main categories of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-eating Disorder. Eating disorders can create significant negative health consequences, and if left untreated, can even be fatal for the sufferer.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by the persistent refusal to consume enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically exhibit an intense fear of gaining weight and tend to view themselves as overweight even when emaciated. In addition to restricting their diet severely, individuals with anorexia nervosa may also exercise obsessively. The health consequences of anorexia nervosa can include lack of menstruation, osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems, and even death. Treatment for anorexia nervosa generally involves a combination of medical attention to restore normal body weight and some form of psychotherapy to address the psychological issues related to the disorder. In addition, psychiatric medications can be effective.

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by periods of extreme overeating followed by attempts to compensate for food consumption through such methods as self-induced vomiting, the misuse of laxatives, enemas, and diuretics, or excessive exercise. This pattern is accompanied by the experience of a lack of control over eating and feelings of guilt and shame. Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa involves concerns about body image and fear of gaining weight. Self-induced vomiting can lead to tooth corrosion, inflamed throat, swelling of the salivary glands, and electrolyte imbalances. Laxative and diuretic abuse can result in problems in the intestines and kidneys. Bulimia nervosa is usually treated through psychotherapy; individuals may also receive nutritional counseling and psychiatric medication.

Binge-eating Disorder involves extreme overeating, usually accompanied by the sense of a loss of control and feelings of guilt and shame. Binge-eating disorder does not include compensatory behaviors for food consumption; as a result, many individuals with binge-eating disorder are overweight or obese. Treatment for binge-eating disorder is similar to that for bulimia nervosa.

The diagnostic prevalence for eating disorders is between 0.5 and 2 percent. However, about 10 percent of girls and women at any one time report having symptoms of an eating disorder. Although these symptoms may not meet diagnostic criteria, they may still cause physical and psychological problems. While eating disorders are primarily diagnosed in females, males are also vulnerable. Some boys and men may want to lose weight, while others may be obsessed with “bulking up.”

Parents should be aware of the warning signs of eating disorders, such as changes in eating patterns, frequent weighing, excessive exercising, preoccupation with getting fat, and severe self-criticism. Since individuals with eating disorders often refuse to believe that they have a problem, parents may need to intervene to get their children the treatment they need.

The information in the article above was drawn from the following sources:

  • Academy for Eating Disorders (2009). About eating disorders.
  • Multiservice Eating Disorders Association (2009).

Additional Sources of Information

Disclaimer: Material on the William James INTERFACE Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The William James INTERFACE Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.