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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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  • Nov 15, 2017
Effective Messages to Fight Stigma

Despite increasing public awareness and discussion about mental illness and substance use disorders, stigma is still a major barrier to many people seeking treatment. New research has identified communication strategies that are effective in reducing stigma and increasing public support for policies and programs benefitting people with behavioral health conditions.

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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


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

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.

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Have a Story of Your Own to Share?

Editor's Choice

JAN 10, 2108

How America's Diet Culture Hinders Those With Eating Disorders

Daily Beast

Longstanding research has shown that eating disorders can be hereditary, meaning some people are simply more likely to develop them than others. But new research from the Eating Recovery Center shows there might be a more specific genetic link than previously thought.

JAN 4, 2018

The Truth About Teen Eating Disorders

U.S. News & World Report

Adolescents are among those at the greatest risk, as the most common age of onset for eating disorders is between 12 and 25. For females between 15 and 24 years old who suffer from anorexia, the mortality rate associated with the illness is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death.

JAN 4, 2018

Figureskating: Eating disorders dull skating's luster as awareness grows


Eating disorders have long been an issue in figure skating, where lighter weights make performing easier and aesthetics dominate -- as they do in ballet and gymnastics, which struggle with similar health problems. But this year the toll has been higher. U.S. skater Gracie Gold, citing psychological issues and an eating disorder, is taking a break for treatment and will almost certainly miss the Olympics, while Sochi Olympics team gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya, 19, shocked the skating world by quitting altogether after treatment for anorexia.


Additional Resources and Organizations

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 Reviewed

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