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Help With Eating Disorders

Curated and updated for the community by APA

Eating disorders are illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become obsessed with food and their body weight.

See definition, symptoms, & treatment

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  • Aug 11, 2015
What You Should Know About Binge Eating Disorder: 3 Doctors Discuss

With up to 4 million Americans having binge eating disorder, it's a significant health issue for our nation. Binge eating disorder has a wide variety of causes, and sometimes it can be caused by several different reasons, even in the same individual.

Are there some common warning signs of eating disorders?

There is no one sign of an eating disorder, however there are red flags. These can include excessive “fat, weight or calorie talk,” a pattern of eating a limited choice of low-calorie food or a pattern of occasional binge eating of calorie-dense foods. People with anorexia nervosa may excessively exercise or excessively stand, pace or fidget. Affected individuals may severely limit the amount of calories they consume or may avoid weight gain following meals by inducing vomiting or abusing laxative, diuretic and diet pills. Feeling self-conscious about one’s eating behavior is common. Affected individuals often avoid social eating settings and eat alone.

What causes an eating disorder?

There is no single cause of an eating disorder. We know that genetics play a large role, but genetic vulnerability is only part of the story. Environment plays a role too, especially in triggering onset, which often occurs in adolescence. Pressure to diet or weight loss related to a medical condition can be the gateway to anorexia nervosa or bulimia. For those who are genetically vulnerable to anorexia nervosa, once they lose the first 5-10 lbs, dieting becomes increasingly compelling and rewarding. Looked at another way, if eating disorders were the result solely of social pressure for thinness we would expect eating disorder rates to have increased as obesity has in the past few decades, yet anorexia nervosa and bulimia remain relatively rare and often cluster in families.

How can I best help and support someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder?

Treatment for an eating disorder is challenging. It involves interrupting behaviors that have become driven and compelling. Recovery takes a team, which includes family, friends and other social supports as well as medical and mental health professionals. Be empathic, but clear. List signs or behaviors you have noticed and are concerned about. Help locate a treatment provider and offer to go with your friend or relative to an evaluation. Be prepared that the affected individual may be uncertain about seeking treatment. Treatment is effective, many are able to achieve full recovery and the vast majority will improve with expert care. Treatment assists affected individuals to change what they do. It helps them normalize their eating and reframe the irrational thoughts that sustain eating disordered behaviors. Food is central to many social activities and the practice of eating meals with supportive friends and family is an important step in recovery.

What is the difference between just overeating on occasion, food addiction and binge eating disorder?

Overeating on occasion or at festive occasions such as Thanksgiving is normal. By contrast, binge eating is the consumption of a large amount of food associated with a sense of loss of control over eating. Bingeing is usually a secretive behavior associated with feeling embarrassed, depressed and guilty. It often includes eating rapidly, till uncomfortably full or when not hungry and feeling disgusted by this behavior. Food addiction is a controversial term used by some researchers to describe parallels between the difficulties some people experience in limiting eating and substance addiction. Unlike in addiction however, where an individual is addicted to one particular class of drug, it is difficult to identify one food that underlies “food addiction.” Similarly the withdrawal syndrome caused by dependence on a drug of abuse is hard to demonstrate in overeaters. Despite the similarities between eating disorders and substance abuse, the neurobiology of binge eating and of drug addiction are not the same.

Helena's Story


Helena was a 16-year-old girl who lived at home with her parents and younger sister. Throughout her teenage years, she had been a normal weight but she worried a great deal about her body weight and shape. She often compared her body weight with that of other girls and women she met or saw—and then judged herself as too heavy.More

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