Eating disorders are devastating mental illnesses that affect more than 7 million American women. Ninety percent of the people who suffer from eating disorders are women, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Although they revolve around eating and body weight, eating disorders aren't entirely about food, but also about feelings and self-expression. Women with eating disorders may use food and dieting as ways of coping with life's stresses. For some, food becomes a source of comfort and nurturing, or a way to control or release stress. For others, losing weight is a way to gain the approval of friends and family. Eating disorders are not diets, signs of personal weakness or problems that will go away without treatment.
Eating disorders occur in all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Eating problems usually develop in girls between age 12 and 25. Age 17 is the average age that an eating disorder develops, and about five percent of young people have eating disorders. Because of the shame associated with this complex illness, many women don't seek treatment or get help until years later. Eating disorders also occur in older women and in men, but much less frequently.
One third to one half of people with eating disorders report struggling with depression and anxiety.
Sometimes depression can lead to eating disorders – and for some, eating disorders can trigger depression. There are three major eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. While the symptoms of each differ, people experiencing these illnesses generally are also suffering from stress, social pressure, and other mental health problems. Each is treatable, but can cause serious physical and emotional problems, if left untreated.
- Anorexia Nervosa – Anorexia’s core symptom is an intense, unreasonable fear of becoming fat, which doesn’t ease even with severe weight loss and extreme reduction of food intake. Untreated anorexia has severe physical consequences – disrupted menstrual periods, malnutrition, and even death.
- Bulimia Nervosa – The key characteristic of bulimia is ongoing bingeing (eating large quantities of food) and purging (vomiting, excessive exercise or use of laxatives). Stress, intense fear of gaining weight and depression are some triggers for bulimia. People with the disorder eat to ease these stresses, and then seek to relieve the guilt they feel for overeating by purging. All the purging methods cause physical problems in time, including electrolyte imbalances, which impair nerve function, dehydration, and stomach and muscle cramps.
- Binge Eating Disorder – Binge eating is compulsive overeating throughout the day. People with this disorder often eat quickly, feel out of control while eating, hoard and hide food from others. They are often depressed, with feelings of self-disgust, guilt and isolation. Binge eating, like anorexia and bulimia, is harmful to one’s health. Problems triggered by binge eating can include high blood pressure, heart problems, joint pain and fatigue.
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) - Refers to symptoms that don't fit into the other categories of eating disorders. Individuals with EDNOS simply don't fit into either anorexic or bulimic diagnosis. They can have binge eating disorder, or be close to anorexia or bulimia without quite meeting full diagnostic criteria. EDNOS is simply a catch-all term for anyone with significant eating problems who doesn't meet for the other diagnoses.
Body image disturbances underlie the development of all eating disorders. Women, in particular, are socialized to believe their worth and power comes from rigid cultural definitions of beauty, including thinness. The result of this may be the development of depression, self-loathing and eating disorders.
Information from A Pathway for Life Long Mental Health. FreedomFromFear.org