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Unhealthy Eating Habits and the Risk of an Eating Disorder

As many as 30 million people in America (20 million women and 10 million men) will struggle with an eating disorder. With statistics this high, it is likely that you, or someone you know, has dealt with this mental health issue. Family members, friends and coworkers can struggle with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder in secret. No matter which eating disorder a person battles, it can be fatal.

What is an eating disorder? It's a mental illness that causes a serious change in diet. Someone who suffers from an eating disorder might eat a very small amount of food or overeat and binge. Sometimes eating disorders begin as diets but, over time, spiral out of control. They can also be characterized by an obsession with weight and body shape. People with eating disorders are often ashamed of their bodies and ashamed of their weight. Parents and friends of a sufferer may notice depression or withdrawal from things he or she once enjoyed.

The most common eating disorders

  • Anorexia nervosa - characterized by someone seeing themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. People with anorexia nervosa typically weigh themselves often, severely restrict the amount of food they eat, and eat very small quantities of only certain foods. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
  • Bulimia nervosa - characterized by someone who, while often maintaining relatively normal weight, practices 'binging and purging,' where they frequently eat unusually large amounts of food followed by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors.
  • Binge-eating disorder - characterized by someone who goes through periods of binge-eating but does not purge afterwards.

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. However, eating disorders are treatable. As with most illnesses, the earlier an eating disorder is detected and treated, the better chance exists for successful recovery.

Eating disorders often begin in the teenage years. In fact, they represent the third most common chronic illness (after asthma and obesity) in adolescent girls. Although eating disorders are less common among adults, they can easily persist past the teenage years. Because of this, early intervention is important. Parents, classmates and teachers are in a crucial position to notice the first symptoms.

The changes that may indicate the onset of an eating disorder are not always obvious. Those who struggle with bulimia or binge eating disorder, for example, will not necessarily be underweight. While people with anorexia may become more and more emaciated, people with binge eating disorder may gain weight.

Signs of those suffering from an eating disorder

  • Sticking to a single food or a limited set of foods
  • Frequent excuses as to why they cannot go out to restaurants with family and friends
  • Always claiming to not be hungry
  • Obsessive exercise habits
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Wearing baggy clothes to disguise their appearance
  • Dental problems
  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Overuse of laxatives to "purge" their bodies of calories after overeating
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

It can also be helpful to consider how people talk about their bodies. Are they constantly disparaging it, or certain body parts? Is their perception of their body drastically different from an objective outsider’s perspective?

Next steps

Are you, or someone you know, preoccupied with food and weight? If you are concerned but not sure how to help, online screenings are a great place to start. They consist of a series of questions designed to indicate whether symptoms of an eating disorder are present. After completing the screening, participants receive immediate, confidential feedback and referral information to local resources for further information or treatment. Take the free and anonymous self-assessment here.

February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month, so please share the news about this free resource with friends and loved ones.