February 27-March 5 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) in the United States. Eating disorders affect nearly 29 million Americans at some point in their lives. As an annual campaign, NEDAW hopes to educate the population regarding the seriousness of these disorders and offer resources for treatment options. 

What is an Eating Disorder?

In general, an eating disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by eating behaviors that negatively impact one’s health and emotions. These disorders are much more complex than eating too much or too little. Preoccupations with food, weight, diet, and exercise can permeate all aspects of life, resulting in poor functioning and adverse health outcomes. 

Specific symptoms of an eating disorder will depend on the patient and their diagnosis. The most common eating disorders include:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an obsession with achieving and maintaining a dangerously low body weight. Anorexic individuals will often go to extreme lengths to lose weight. In addition to severely limiting caloric intake, they may over-exercise, vomit after eating, or abuse diet pills and laxatives. Patients with anorexia can become emergently underweight, although a person does not need to be noticeably underweight to be diagnosed with this disorder. Other signs of anorexia may be dry or brittle hair and nails, low heart rate, fainting or dizzy spells, and absence of or irregular menses.

Anorexia has a high fatality rate compared to other mental health disorders. Death can occur from complications due to malnutrition and dehydration. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among patients diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. 

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is another serious eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binge eating and purging, usually via vomiting. Bulimic individuals will often lose control over their eating and consume a large amount of calories in one sitting. Ensuing guilt compels them to rid themselves of the calories in an unhealthy way. 

Patients with bulimia are typically a normal weight, or slightly overweight. Complications of bulimia include tooth decay, bowel irregularities, inflamed esophagus, and menstrual irregularities. Bulimic individuals are also at risk for self harm, especially after a binging episode.

Binge Eating Disorder

Like bulimia, binge eating disorder involves periods of uncontrolled eating and very high caloric intake. Unlike bulimia, however, individuals with binge eating disorder do not attempt to purge the food they have eaten. Binge episodes are often once a week or more. 

Individuals with binge eating disorder are frequently embarrassed by their eating habits. As such, they may begin to isolate themselves. Guilt and shame over binge episodes can also lead to comorbid conditions, such as depression and anxiety. 

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

This disorder has an earlier onset than the other eating disorders (usually childhood). Unlike anorexia, bulimia, or binge disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake does not occur as a result of distorted body image. Individuals do not take in enough calories to develop or function properly, but the reasons for avoiding or restricting food are varied. Children may avoid foods with a certain texture or color, for example; or, an adult may refuse to eat solid foods for fear of choking. 

The greatest risk associated with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder in children is delayed physical and neurological development. Adults with the disorder are at risk for complications resulting from malnutrition and dehydration. 

Who Gets Eating Disorders?

Anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, can develop an eating disorder. However, there are certain risk factors associated with an increased prevalence of disordered eating. Family history and the presence of other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, can mean a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Teenage and young women are also statistically more likely to be diagnosed with bulimia and anorexia than males. 

It is important to note that many eating disorders go undiagnosed, which means statistics can be misleading. Just because someone falls outside of the typical demographic does not mean they won’t or do not already have an eating disorder. Keep an eye out for secretive behavior around food and sudden changes in appearance. Encourage a friend or family member with signs of an eating disorder to seek treatment right away.

Treatment of Eating Disorders

The exact treatment for an eating disorder will depend upon several factors, including the specific diagnosis, age of the patient, and progression of the disease. Life-threatening complications will need to be addressed first, especially in cases of severe dehydration and malnutrition. 

Once immediate concerns have been treated, the individual will need to be evaluated by a psychotherapist, counselor, or other qualified medical provider. He or she can help determine the course of treatment, which may include a combination of talk/group therapy, nutrition education, and medications.

Eating Disorder Therapist in Florida

The compassionate providers at the Crane Center are skilled in treating a variety of mental health concerns, including all types of eating disorders. We work with each patient on a custom treatment plan that includes both traditional and alternative methods. If you or a loved one are battling an eating disorder, please call our office to schedule a consultation.