What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are not just about food and weight, they are serious and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses, in which a person experiences a severe disturbance in eating and exercise behaviors because of distortions in thoughts and emotions, especially those relating to body image or feelings of self-worth. People in all age groups, genders, and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds can be affected by eating disorders.

A person has an eating disorder when their attitudes to food, weight, body size or shape lead to marked changes in their eating or exercise behaviors, which interfere with their lives and relationships. A person with an eating disorder can be underweight, within a healthy weight range, or overweight. Eating and exercise behaviors that people with eating disorders may engage in include: dieting, fasting, over-exercising, using slimming pills, diuretics, laxatives, or vomiting.

There are three main different types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. If the person is underweight and using extreme weight-loss strategies, they may have anorexia, as well if the person is engaging in binge eating followed by extreme weight loss strategies, they may have bulimia.

If the person regularly eats an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time, accompanied by a sense of loss of control over their eating, but does not use extreme weight-loss strategies to compensate, they may have binge eating disorder. People with binge eating disorder may be within a healthy weight range or overweight.

A person with an eating disorder can experience a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Although rapid weight loss or being very underweight are known to bring about these problems, a person does not need to be underweight for these to occur.

Some serious health consequences associated with eating disorders include severe malnutrition, brain dysfunction and heart or kidney failure, which may lead to loss of consciousness or death. Heart failure and death can occur in both anorexia or bulimia. It is common for a person with an eating disorder to experience another mental illness, such as depression, and to be at risk of becoming suicidal.

Because eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, people experiencing them will benefit from professional help. For most people, the earlier help is sought for their unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors, the easier it will be to overcome the problem. A delay in seeking treatment can lead to serious long-term consequences for the person’s physical and mental health. So, the earlier the person gets help, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. Therefore, the sooner you discuss your concerns with the person the better.

Eating disorders are long-term problems that are not easily overcome. Although there is no quick and easy solution, effective treatments are available. The most effective treatment involves receiving help from a number of different types of professionals. It is best to encourage the person to seek help from a professional with specific training in eating disorders, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, dietician or family therapist.