Food helps sustain life. But an unhealthy relationship with eating can lead to disorders that turn our relationship with diet on its head.
“Eating disorders are very serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses,” says Lauren Smolar, director of programs for the National Eating Disorders Association.
Medical issues related to either malnutrition or over-consumption of food are common, she says. They include:
- Heart problems
- Kidney failure
- Bone loss
- Digestive issues
“All eating disorders are very serious, and have different combinations of very severe, life-threatening health consequences,” Smolar says.
About 30 million Americans have an eating disorder, according to the Eating Disorders Coalition.
And contrary to popular belief, they are not all female. For example, men account for about half the reported cases of binge eating, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Types of eating disorders
Experts have identified a variety of eating disorders. They include:
Anorexia nervosa. People with this condition typically restrict the number of calories and types of foods they consume. An obsession with weight loss — and a distorted body image – are hallmarks of the condition.
Bulimia nervosa. A cycle of binging on food — then trying to compensate for the binge by vomiting or other means — is typical of bulimia nervosa. This dangerous condition often is associated with other negative behaviors, such as self-abuse (cutting), substance abuse, and risky, impulsive behavior.
Orthorexia nervosa. Although the condition is not yet recognized as a clinical diagnosis, orthorexia nervosa involves obsession with eating healthful foods. People with this issue become fixated on both the quality and purity of food. In many cases, the diet becomes so restrictive that a person suffers both physically and emotionally.
Binge-eating disorder. As with bulimia nervosa, people with binge-eating disorder tend to gorge themselves on food. However, they do not follow the binge with a purge. As a result, people with this condition tend to gain large amounts of weight and are at risk of obesity. This is the most common eating disorder in America, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Pica. People with pica consume things not traditionally considered to be food, and that have no nutritional value. They might include hair, dirt and even paint chips.
Symptoms of eating disorders
Changes in a person’s food-related attitudes or behaviors might indicate an underlying eating disorder.
For example, people with a budding eating disorder might consume less food — or more — than in the past. They might become more secretive or rigid about the foods in their diet, or about the foods they consume.
“If your thoughts and behaviors around food are interfering with your ability to lead a happy and flexible life, these can be signs of concern,” Smolar says.
Other symptoms include:
- Compulsive exercise
- Vomiting to purge food
- Inappropriate use of laxatives
Typically, people develop an eating disorder during their teen years, or early in adulthood. But the problem can also emerge in childhood, or later in adult life.
Getting help for an eating disorder
If you or a loved one have signs of an eating disorder, it’s important to reach out to a professional for help.
To find help near you, check out the National Eating Disorders Association’s Find Treatment webpage. Or, call 1-800-931-2237.
“The earlier you seek help, the better,” Smolar says. “Do not wait for the issues to become worse, as earlier (intervention) can produce better outcomes.”
It can be tricky to intervene when a loved one has an eating disorder. Smolar recommends speaking to him or her about your concerns in a nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental way.
“Encourage them to seek help,” she says.