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What Is An Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are very serious and affect both physical and mental health. Left untreated, they can be fatal. People with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder may exhibit some—though perhaps not all—of the signs and symptoms of the disorders.

Learning to recognize these warning signs is the first step toward helping. And when you help, you may save someone’s life.

You may suspect that someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, but because people with eating disorders are often in denial, it’s hard to be certain. It could be your daughter, sister, mother, friend, or roommate. The person may try to hide it, but the focus of her everyday life revolves—obsessively—around food, weight, and shape.

This obsession can take many forms. Some people try to starve themselves. Others binge and then try to counter this by purging. Still others may eat in an uncontrolled, frenzied way, beyond the point of being physically full.

The roots of eating disorders

Eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, genetic, psychological, social, and developmental roots. Many of the symptoms of eating disorders are secondary effects of malnutrition, low weight, and dietary changes. It is important to keep in mind that there is never a single cause and that effective treatment must address a wide range of factors, including low self-esteem, depression, stress, abusive or troubled relationships, and social pressures to be thin. Over time, an eating disorder can often become a way to help manage painful feelings.

There is still a mistaken belief that eating disorders are only caused by societal pressures to be thin. While this may be a factor, we now know that the various types of eating disorders are associated with specific personality or temperament types. People who develop anorexia nervosa, for example, are often anxious and restrained. They tend to focus intensely on details and often impose impossibly perfectionist demands on themselves. In contrast, people with bulimia nervosa are more likely to impulsively act on whatever they may be thinking or feeling.

Emerging research strongly suggests that such underlying traits can put certain individuals at heightened risk for developing an eating disorder. The onset of the disorder often follows some sort of traumatic or distressing event. It may even be triggered in some individuals by a significant birthday, a transfer to a new school, feelings of competition and envy, or off-hand remarks about one’s weight and looks.

Treatment begins with understanding

Once an eating disorder has been recognized, it can be treated successfully. If you believe someone you know may have an eating disorder, you can help save her life—with a call to The Renfrew Center at 1-800-RENFREW.

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