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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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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. More

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 five to 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. More

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. More

We tend to hear about young women and eating disorders, but are there other groups of people that are more often affected by eating disorders?

Eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect anyone. Although they are most common in young women, it is not unusual for older women to have an eating disorder. Some have had one all their life, others were only mildly affected until some life event triggers clinical worsening – a stressor, physical illness or a co-occurring psychiatric illness, such as depression or anxiety. Recent evidence strongly suggests that anxiety disorders, especially social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive personality traits increase individual vulnerability to an eating disorder. Eating disorders occur in men too. An estimated 10 percent of people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia and a third or more of people with binge eating disorder are male. More

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About the Expert:

Angela Guarda, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Director, Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program
The Johns Hopkins University

Helena’s Story

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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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APA Resources

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Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5

Understanding Mental Disorders is a consumer guide designed to promote education and understanding among anyone who has been touched by mental illness.

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Editor's Choice
  • December 7, 2015

'Eat Up': How Cultural Messages Can Lead To Eating Disorders
NPR

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders affect up to 30 million people in the U.S. — two-thirds of them women. While there is more recognition that eating disorders affect people of all races and ethnicities, Reyes-Rodríguez says racially and ethnically diverse communities don't have equal access to treatments. More


  • December 5, 2015

40 Things People With Eating Disorders Wish Others Understood
Yahoo Health

Eating disorders are real — not a fad, not a lifestyle choice — and are about so much more than being thin, despite what many think. More


  • Oct 18, 2015

Binge eating disorder is the hardest addiction to beat
In-Depth-Daily Mail

After a lifetime blighted by compulsive eating, this woman thought she’d beaten it - only to relapse again. Kate Battersby has been suffering from binge eating disorder for 34 years. More

Resources

National Eating Disorders Association


Mental Health America


National Alliance on Mental Illness


National Institute on Mental Health


Screening for Mental Health, Inc.


Overeaters Anonymous


Renfrew Center Foundation


Eating Disorder Information and Referral Center

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
May 2015