What is an eating disorder?

Kelly Davis, Mental Health America

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that look like unhealthy behaviors, obsessions, and compulsions around food, exercise, and/or body shape. They affect people of all ages, races, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. They are the most lethal of any mental health conditions and can have serious health consequences, including osteoporosis, gastric rupture, and Type II Diabetes Mellitus.

Most people associate eating disorders with an obsession with being skinny, but they are far more complicated than that. They are thought to result from a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Many people with eating disorders have other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other addictions. Trauma, especially sexual trauma, is also very common among individuals with eating disorders.

While dieting, unhealthy eating, and body image concerns are often dismissed and even promoted in American culture, many of these behaviors will eventually become eating disorders. It’s important to address any symptoms that are having a negative impact on your life and functioning. There is no required severity or body weight that a person must reach before they deserve help or support.

The most common eating disorders are: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), formerly called Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Symptoms of eating disorders include restricting food intake, overexercise, self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, and periods of overeating where the person feels out of control. Many people engage in behaviors across eating disorders or switch eating disorders throughout their lives.

While eating disorders are complicated conditions, recovery is possible. The earlier a person gets help the better, both for psychological and physical recovery. With services and supports that can include a therapist, dietician, psychiatrist, support groups, and/or primary care physician, individuals can and do go on to lead lives with healthy relationships with food and exercise.

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