Health Library

Understanding Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is an unhealthy obsession with food and weight. People with eating disorders eat—or avoid eating—in extreme ways. At least 8 million people in the U.S. are living with an eating disorder. The overwhelming majority—about 90%—are female.

These are the three main types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia severely restrict calories to the point of starvation. They are obsessed with being thin and have an unhealthy and distorted body image. They may refuse to eat at all or only eat tiny amounts of food that has few calories. Anorexics are extremely thin. Yet, they constantly think of themselves as overweight.

  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimics binge on huge quantities of food. They then force themselves to vomit. They may also exercise compulsively and take laxatives to help rid their body of the calories they've eaten. Bulimics continue this cycle of binging and purging. They may also diet excessively in between binges. Bulimics aren't necessarily extremely thin. In fact, they may often seem to be of normal weight.

  • Binge-eating disorder. This is also known as compulsive overeating. Binge eaters eat excessive amounts of food without purging. They often eat uncontrollably despite feeling full. Binge eaters may feel guilty or ashamed after a binge. They then go on an extreme diet as a result. Binge eaters may be of normal weight, overweight, or obese. Anorexia and bulimia aren't common in men. But binge eating disorder does affect about as many men as it does women.

Other eating disorders don't quite fit into any of the above categories and are usually classified as "eating disorders not otherwise specified."

Managing eating disorders

Eating disorders can be treated successfully, but the answer isn't as simple as changing eating habits. This is because eating disorders are about much more than food. They stem from emotional issues that must be addressed. Therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, is a crucial part of treating and managing eating disorders. Some people may also be prescribed medicines, such as antidepressants, to help overcome an eating disorder. Those with binge eating disorder may sometimes need appetite suppressants to help manage their condition.

No one-size-fits-all treatment is available for eating disorders. Rather, treatment is specifically tailored to each individual.

Preventing eating disorders

Experts don't truly understand what causes eating disorders. It's thought that the pressures of society may play a role. Other causes may include personal stress and perhaps certain personality traits. Fortunately, you can take steps to help prevent eating disorders, both before the first symptoms appear or in the early stages.

Programs that teach children and adults about healthy eating habits and a healthy body weight are one prevention method. A better understanding of how unrealistic society's expectations regarding body weight are can also promote a healthier body image and prevent eating disorders.