An eating disorder is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as an illness that results in a severe disturbance of one’s diet. These “disturbances” in diet are detrimental to the person’s health and interfere in their lives in general. They typically range from starving oneself to extreme overeating. Eating disorders can stem from an irrational desire to obtain an extreme body weight; however, they are often a form of coping mechanism used to help an individual deal with extreme emotional distress or loss of control. Eating disorders typically start during one’s teen years and, although more likely in women, they can affect both genders. Understanding common eating disorders is the first step in helping those who are affected by them.
Anorexia nervosa, which is most often referred to as simply anorexia, is a serious eating disorder that in five to twenty percent of cases ends in death. People who suffer from this disorder intentionally avoid eating and often starve themselves in order to achieve an excessive amount of weight loss. The way that they view themselves is often distorted and they have an overwhelming fear of weight gain. Typically, people with anorexia are at a lower than normal weight (less than eighty-five percent) for someone who is their height. In addition to self-starvation, people with anorexia may excessively exercise. The condition is dangerous as it can result in a number of complications. As previously mentioned, an individual with anorexia may die as a result of their condition; however, even those who do not die may suffer from anemia and bone loss. People with anorexia may suffer from malnutrition, which can cause damage to major organs such as the kidneys and brain. Gender-based problems may also occur. For example, the condition may cause men to experience a decrease in their testosterone levels. Gender specific complications for women include a loss of one’s period. Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive or other personality disorders often accompany anorexia.
Like anorexia, bulimia nervosa is more common amongst women – particularly younger women and adolescent girls. With bulimia, the affected individual will secretly binge on foods that are typically high in calories. The individual then feels extreme guilt or disgust over her or his actions and will purge the food either by vomiting, using laxatives, or other methods. This type of behavior can occur several times a day. Excessive exercise also accompanies bulimia. It is often difficult to recognize someone with this condition as they often are a normal body weight even if they believe that they are overweight. Bulimic individuals will typically have dental issues such as tooth decay and gum problems. They may suffer from dehydration, lack of a menstrual cycle, digestive and/or heart problems.
Compulsive overeating and binge eating are disorders in which people experience periods of uncontrollable eating of large amounts of food. These episodes are often done in private, but unlike bulimia, the food is not expelled after. People with this disorder may feel anxiety, loneliness, and/or depression. They will eat even if they are not hungry or if they are already full. They are aware that their eating habits are abnormal and typically feel shame, guilt and disgust at their behavior. In terms of body weight, they may be a normal weight for someone their height, or they may be overweight or obese. Over-eaters may also go on frequent diets that are unsuccessful and that eventually worsen the overeating. Complications include an elevated risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and weight gain.
Orthorexia differs from other types of food disorders in that eating healthy food is the problem. While at face value healthy eating cannot be considered a health or mental problem, it can and does become one when an individual becomes obsessed with healthy eating. With orthorexia, a person becomes obsessed to the point that he or she is refuses to eat anything that is not strictly considered healthy. This extreme response may find individuals skipping foods that are not certified organic or avoiding all foods that have been processed in any way. Even healthy items that have been minimally processed are shunned by orthorexic individuals. Statistically, women in their thirties are more affected by the condition than men.