If you’re like most kids, lunch might be your favorite part of school and you just can’t wait to tuck into Mom’s homemade lasagna for dinner.  In other words, you like to eat!  Eating is a great part of everyday life – but some people can develop problems with their eating habits that can turn into conditions called eating disorders. Read on to find out more.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a condition where someone’s eating habits interfere with living a normal, healthy life.  These eating habits can get so bad that they actually put someone’s life in danger.  Sometimes these conditions cause someone to eat way too much or way too little, but either way they can be dangerous.

There are a variety of eating disorders, but the three main ones which will be covered here are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED).

How Do You Know if Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

The signs and symptoms of an eating disorder depend on the type.

Anorexia Signs and Symptoms

  • Severe eating restrictions to maintain a low body weight
  • Refusal to maintain a normal weight
  • Belief that they are “fat” even when they are very thin
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Exercising too much to keep weight off
  • Use of laxatives or vomiting to get rid of food (not all anorexics do this)
  • Muscle weakness or muscle wasting
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Lack of menstruation
  • Dry skin
  • Anemia
  • Organ failure (including heart failure)

Bulimia Signs and Symptoms

  • Slightly underweight, normal weight or slightly overweight
  • Episodes of bingeing and purging, where a lot of food will be eaten but then thrown up on purpose
  • Over-exercising or using laxatives to get rid of calories from food
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed about overeating
  • Inflamed sore throat, swollen glands in the throat and worn tooth enamel (from vomiting)
  • Calluses on the fingers (from vomiting also)
  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances (such as having too little potassium or sodium in the body)
  • Stomach problems like acid reflux

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) Signs and Symptoms

  • Periods of overeating that a person cannot control
  • Because people with BED do not vomit, use laxatives or over-exercise, they can often become overweight or obese
  • Feelings of guilt or shame or preoccupation with weight
  • Eating in secret
  • Because of weight, people with BED can be at higher risk for developing serious conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes

What Diagnoses Go Along with Eating Disorders?

When someone has an eating disorder, this is often not the only problem that they have. Other problems that go along with this include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder

When coming up with a treatment plan, these disorders will also need to be dealt with.

What are the Warning Signs to Look For?

Sometimes eating disorders can be hard to treat because people with these conditions try to hide their behaviors. Warning signs to look for include:

  • Missing meals
  • Eating very little at meals or playing with food but not eating it
  • Obsessing over healthy eating or calorie content of food
  • Not wanting to eat meals with others
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Looking in the mirror a lot
  • Worrying about weight or about getting fat
  • Eating too much at a meal or snacking excessively
  • Using laxatives, water pills, diet pills or other medications in order to lose weight
  • Exercising too much
  • Eating in secret

What Causes Eating Disorders

There is no one, simple answer for what causes an eating disorder. Most researchers believe it is a mixture of genetics (these disorders can run in the family), abnormalities in the way the brain functions, psychological issues like depression and the pressure that society puts on people (especially women and girls) to be thin.

Who is at Risk for an Eating Disorder?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder. However, certain people are at greater risk than others.  Things that put people at risk include:

  • Being female
  • Being a teenager or young adult
  • Having a family history of eating disorders
  • Having another disorder like anxiety or depression
  • Being in certain professions (modeling, acting, sports)
  • Trying to deal with stressful life events (like the loss of a loved one)

What Complications Can Come from Eating Disorders?

One of the most serious parts of an eating disorder are the complications or extra problems they can bring, including:

  • Serious medical problems like malnutrition, heart disease, organ failure and death
  • Thoughts of hurting oneself
  • Problems with relationships with family and friends
  • Problems growing and developing normally
  • Difficulty at school or work
  • Using substances like alcohol or drugs

How Does the Doctor Diagnose an Eating Disorder?

Diagnosing an eating disorder can be a complicated problem – and there is no one test which a doctor can run to do it.  Diagnosis can be based on:

  • Physical exam, including weight and body mass index and an examination of mouth and throat if doctor suspects that patient is vomiting regularly
  • Psychiatric evaluation, to look for depression, anxiety or other problems which often go along with eating disorders
  • Evaluation of eating habits and behaviors
  • Blood work or imaging tests to look for things like low protein or iron levels or weakened bones (possible signs of malnutrition)

In order to be diagnosed, a person must have a certain set of signs and symptoms that are defined in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

How is an Eating Disorder Treated?

Treating an eating disorder can be very difficult: people with these disorders can often deny that they have a problem or try to refuse treatment. It has been found that combining several treatments works best, including:

  • Education on eating habits to maintain a healthy weight
  • Nutritional counselling
  • Therapy that can include cognitive behavioral therapy or family-based therapy
  • Treatment of other conditions like anxiety or depression (if present)
  • Hospitalization if symptoms are severe or life-threatening

In short, eating disorders are serious – and there can be serious consequences if they are not diagnosed and treated. However, the good news is that when people get the help they need for this problem, they can often reverse the damage done to their bodies and learn how to achieve a healthy body weight and change behaviors that were causing the condition to begin with.