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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 pre-occupied 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

Have a Story of Your Own to Share?

Editor's Choice

AUG 8, 2017

Most people with eating disorders don’t seek help. Could an app help?

Washington Post

The movie “To the Bone” depicts the life of a young woman struggling with an eating disorder and has sparked much conversation about an illness that affects 1 out of every 10 Americans at some point during their life. Now, an eating disorder app could help. “The app makes it easy for people to get help in the moment they recognize that they need it,” said Claire Mysko, chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

JULY 31, 2017

Eating disorder in men rise by 70% in NHS figures

The Guardian

The number of men admitted to hospital with eating disorder grew at same rate as among women between 2010 and 2016. The rate of increase was slightly higher among older men, at 70% for the 41-60 age group, compared with 67% in the 26-40 category and 63% among 19- to 25-year-olds.

JULY 7, 2017

Tackling The Myth That Eating Disorders Are A ‘White Issue’

Huffington Post

There is a common assumption that eating disorders are a “white issue” for which the media (see films like Perfect Body or The Love of Nancy) and lack of understanding in minority cultures are to blame. Women of colour and I observe black women here, in particular, are deemed to be less vulnerable to eating disorders because they have a layer of “cultural protection”, given that a fuller figure is celebrated in many African and Caribbean cultures.

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