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Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating to improve health is a positive change, but sometimes a focus on food and controlling body weight reaches extreme levels. When healthy habits turn to an obsession with food, restricted eating, or excessive overeating, it’s important to take action. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides helpful tips for identifying eating disorders and provides guidance for seeking help.

Types of Eating Disorders

The NEDA recognizes three main eating disorders -- Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. A fourth group is titled, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, or OSFED. Disorders in this category have similarities to those mentioned, but may not fit the specific requirements to be diagnosed and classified under them.

While all three involve eating patterns that can lead to life-threatening results, each has unique practices and characteristics. Anorexia Nervosa is marked by self-inflicted starvation that leads to concerning weight loss. Bulimia Nervosa involves binging on large amounts of foods and then purging in some way, such as by self-induced vomiting. Binge Eating Disorder involves binging on large amounts of food, but there is no purging component, which can result in excessive weight gain and obesity related diseases.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

It’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders so that you can identify when healthy habits and weight loss have gone too far. Both Anorexia and Bulimia can include a strict exercise routine, along with a withdraw from family and friends. Additional signs of Anorexia include inadequate food intake, an obsession about body weight, and an extreme concern over specific components of food, like calories or fat grams. Being fat is a common complaint, and all these practices persist despite reaching a healthy weight. Over time, the severe food restrictions and over exercise lead to a dangerously low body weight.

With Bulimia, large amounts of food are consumed at once and eating may be followed by frequent trips to the bathroom. In addition to vomiting, other forms of purging can include the use of laxatives or diuretics. Major concern over weight loss and food control become evident, and the binge and purge cycle becomes a ritual that disrupts normal, daily life.

Binge Eating Disorder also involves eating large amounts of food and is associated with feelings of being out of control. Eating is associated with shame or guilt. Those affected eat until they feel discomfort and often eat when they are not hungry.

Ways to Help

Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age or gender. These disorders have many underlying issues that can vary by person, which makes them challenging to treat. It’s often difficult for a person suffering from a disorder to see the need to get help. As a friend or loved one, it’s important that your concern be expressed in a loving way and that you remain supportive. It’s also important to take action as soon as you notice that there could be a problem. The longer eating disorders persist, the more dangerous they become. Once medical tests are conducted to diagnose the disorder, a path of treatment can be outlined to help patients return to better emotional and physical health.


Lori Rice, M.S., is a nutritional scientist and author with a passion for healthy cooking, exercise physiology, and food photography.
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