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In the United States, eating disorders affect approximately 30 million Americans. These disorders are a type of mental illness in which a person has an extreme and unhealthy relationship with food and a negative body image. It can affect both women and men of all ages. It is important for people to understand the severity of eating disorders and how dangerous they are. They can cause numerous problems such as disrupting one’s social life and physical problems that range from dental issues to organ failure and death. There are three primary eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Each of these negatively impact the body in various ways.
Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia, is one of the more commonly recognized eating disorders. It is a condition in which a person obsesses over being thin. This obsession creates a distorted view of their weight that causes them to view themselves as overly fat, even if they have become dangerously thin. A person with anorexia will become overly thin to the point of being emaciated because they fear that they are, or will become, fat or overweight. That fear is so strong that they see any body weight, even a healthy body weight, as bad. To prevent weight gain, they may restrict calories by consuming very small portions of food and participate in excessive exercising or fasting. This represents a type of anorexia called restricting-type anorexia. Other people with the condition may binge on and purge out food. The purging may include vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, enemas, or dietary aids. This type of anorexia is called purging-type anorexia.
At the very root of the problem, this eating disorder is not about the food or even body weight. Mental health professionals believe that anorexia stems from other issues such as feelings of deep insecurity, lack of control, depression, or extreme low self-esteem. Some people may have suffered problems during childhood such as anxiety issues or eating problems at a very early age. It is most common in women and often manifests when a person is a teenager or during the pre-teen years. Anorexia affects the body in various ways. Most of the problems that it causes come from a lack of proper nutrients caused by eating too little or from purging. The problems that anorexia can cause include but are not limited to the following:
- Dental problems such as tooth decay
- Weakness of the bones and osteoporosis
- Irregular heart rhythms due to decreased potassium levels
- Heart failure
- Kidney failure as a result of dehydration
- Amenorrhea, or lack of menstruation
- Decreased testosterone in men
- Hair loss
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Muscle loss or wasting
- Low blood pressure
- Damage to the brain
With this eating disorder, people are often average-sized or just slightly overweight. They are desperate to lose weight and go on various diets as a result; however, the more rigid the diet, the more intensely they crave food. These cravings cause people with bulimia to secretly consume copious amounts of food in one sitting, which is known as binging. On average, a person who is on a binge may within a one-hour span consume as much as 5,000 calories. After the individual has binged, there are overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and fear of weight gain due to the massive amounts of calories consumed. As a result, the individual will try to remove the consumed food from their system to minimize any chances of putting on more weight. To do this, they purge the food by vomiting or using laxatives. Even people who do not physically purge their food may also have bulimia if they participate in excessive exercise or fasting. This condition is typically associated with having a poor self-image or depression, and the behavior typically occurs twice a week for no less than three months.
Eighty percent of bulimia sufferers are women. People who suspect that a friend or loved one has bulimia should look for common signs of bulimia nervosa. Often, these signs are in the form of behavioral changes. People suffering from bulimia may start eating alone or secretly. Another sign is regularly visiting the bathroom after eating. While in the bathroom, they may run water in the sink as a way of covering the sound of vomiting. Additionally, they may cut off social relationships and decrease activities, and they may exercise regularly regardless of weather conditions, health, or injuries. The individual may have bruises or scars on their knuckles from forcing themselves to vomit frequently, and they may smell strongly of vomit as well. People who smell of vomit often try to cover the smell with perfumes or cologne, mouthwash, mints, or chewing gum. Vomiting may make their cheeks look puffy or like “chipmunk” cheeks. While their weight is average to slightly overweight, it may regularly fluctuate by ten pounds in both directions. Health problems caused by bulimia are typically due to chemical imbalances in the body. They are often associated with the digestive system as well, due to the act of purging. Problems caused by bulimia nervosa include the following:
- Loss of tooth enamel and other problems with dental decay due to frequent vomiting
- Gum disease
- Cardiovascular problems ranging from irregular heartbeats to even death. This can be the result of an imbalance in electrolytes due to decreased potassium levels or dehydration.
- Thinning bones
- Bowel complications stemming from the overuse of laxatives
- Dehydration and problems with one’s kidneys
- Depression and anxiety.
- Rupturing of the esophagus or even the stomach
- Constipation that is chronic in nature due to the overuse of laxatives
Binge Eating Disorder
The most common type of eating disorder in the United States is Binge Eating Disorder, which is commonly known by its acronym BED, or compulsive eating. There are more people with BED than there are women and men with bulimia and anorexia combined. This condition is defined as regular binge eating that occurs at least once weekly for a minimum of three months, even though the person is not hungry at the time. Often, the eating is associated with one’s emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, or even anger. During these episodes, the person feels as if they have lost control of how or what is being eaten and their ability to stop. Typically, the episodes last approximately two hours and the individual eats until they are full to the point of extreme discomfort and even pain. Unlike other eating disorders, a person with BED will not purge after binging, nor will they engage in excessive exercise. This was first recognized as an official diagnosis in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. After the episode of binging, the individual is overcome with feelings of shame due to having eaten so much or feelings of guilt. Additionally, when a person binges, they may also feel depressed or disgusted by their actions.
Although scientists are not certain what the cause of BED is, depression, dieting, biology, and poor coping skills may affect it. Anyone can suffer from BED, regardless of body weight; however, people who are overweight are more likely to be BED sufferers. Additionally, because they do not purge, BED sufferers are also more likely to carry extra weight than people with bulimia or anorexia. Because it causes weight gain and obesity in some, many of the health problems associated with it are associated with obesity. Negative side effects of BED include:
- Cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gallbladder problems
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Fatty liver disease
- High cholesterol levels
- Eating Disorders Statistics
- Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia: Anorexia Nervosa
- Diseases and Conditions: Anorexia Nervosa
- Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa
- Medical Reference Guide: Anorexia Nervosa
- Eating Disorder Awareness: Anorexia Nervosa (PDF)
- Conditions and Treatment: Anorexia Nervosa
- Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa (PDF)
- Commonly Asked Questions: Bulimia Nervosa
- Stanford School of Medicine: Bulimia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment, and Help
- Bulimia Nervosa: Topic Overview
- Psychology Today: Bulimia Nervosa
- NAMI: Bulimia Nervosa Fact Sheet (PDF)
- What is BED?
- PBS Nova: Eating Disorders and Minorities
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Complications and Prognosis of Binge Eating Disorder
- Binge Eating Disorder Fact Sheet
- Eating Concerns: Binge Eating Disorder
- Mental Health Topics: Binge Eating Disorder