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The ABCs of Eating Disorders

Eating is a behavior most of us take for granted. We get hungry, we find food, we eat … no big deal. Unfortunately, for people suffering from eating disorders, sitting down to a meal may be a stressful and even frightening experience.

Eating disorders are defined as “abnormal behaviors related to food and eating that may include starving, bingeing, vomiting, laxative abuse, or excessive exercise accompanied by bizarre ideas about food, unrealistic body image, and psychologic and developmental disorders”. An eating disorder may develop due to low self-esteem, chronic dieting, stress and sometimes physical or sexual abuse. There are 3 distinct types of eating disorders. Let’s take a look:

Anorexia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa

Compulsive Eating (Binge Eating Disorder)

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa (or Anorexia) is characterized by a loss of weight with a consistent inability and refusal to maintain normal weight. People with anorexia have an irrational fear of gaining weight and see themselves as FAT, despite being very thin. Typically, anorexia affects more women than men, but its prevalence in men is increasing.

People with anorexia strive for perfection and set very high standards for themselves. They may feel out of control in their lives, and feel more control by starving themselves and losing weight. Although the word anorexia means loss of appetite, persons with anorexia feel hungry but learn to deny those feelings. Over time, they may literally starve themselves to death. Often they are in denial of their problem. Take a look at the table below to find out more about anorexia.

Physical Signs and Symptoms
Behavioral Signs and Symptoms
  • Weight below normal, visibly thin
  • Pale complexion
  • Thinning hair
  • “Peach fuzz” on face or arms (called “lanugo”)
  • Hypothermia (feels cold often)
  • Abnormal eating habits, restricts or only eats certain food groups
  • Exercises excessively
  • Withdraws from social events
  • Gains pleasure from watching others eat

Anorexia is a serious eating disorder, which must be treated. Without treatment, a person with anorexia may suffer the following medical problems:

  • Amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period)
  • Infertility
  • Osteoporosis
  • Dehydration and dizziness
  • Malnutrition
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Death

If you or some one you know may have anorexia, seek medical and psychological help ASAP!


Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa (Bulimia) is another eating disorder that can affect both men and women, but is more common in women. Unlike anorexia, a person with bulimia EATS. Unfortunately, a person with bulimia compulsively eats (binges) and then purges (gets rid of the food by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics), exercises compulsively, or fasts in order to compensate for overeating.

Someone with bulimia often feels insecure and seeks the approval of others. Substance abuse is more common in those with bulimia, as is sexual promiscuity. Persons with bulimia may eat due to stress to “stuff down” their emotions. Unlike those with anorexia, a person with bulimia often knows he/she has a problem and is more likely to seek help. Here are some signs, symptoms and behaviors of bulimia:

Physical Signs and Symptoms
Behavioral Signs and Symptoms
  • Normal, overweight or underweight
  • Tooth decay
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Swollen glands
  • Teeth marks or abrasions on fingers or hands
  • Muscle weakness or fatigue
  • Compulsive binge eating
  • Immediate use of bathroom after meals
  • Vomiting, using laxatives or exercising compulsively
  • Substance abuse
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Avoidance of events involving food
  • Chronically dieting

Bulimia is also a very serious eating disorder. Without help, a person with bulimia may die from cardiac arrest (heart attack) due to abnormal electrolyte levels. Other medical problems include:

  • Heartburn, esophageal reflux
  • Dehydration, low blood pressure
  • Irregular menstruation or amenorrhea
  • Stomach pain or ulcers
  • Tooth decay, dental caries
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Digestive problems

If you suspect bulimia in yourself or some one you love, seek help ASAP!

Compulsive Eating (Binge Eating Disorder)

Compared to anorexia and bulimia, Compulsive Eating (Binge Eating Disorder) may seem like a walk in the park. However, this eating disorder is not without problems.

Compulsive eating is characterized by uncontrolled eating, without using purging or other behaviors to compensate for the calories. Food is used as a way to cope with stress, emotions and daily problems. Compulsive eaters may feel out of control and recognize their eating habits are not normal, but not practice extreme behaviors to rid themselves of the calories.

Chronic dieting, stress and family eating behaviors may all contribute to compulsive eating. A compulsive eater is usually overweight, but not all people that are overweight are compulsive eaters. Check out the chart below for physical and psychological problems of compulsive eating:

Physical Problems
Psychological Problems
  • Heartburn
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Potential for diabetes
  • Potential for arthritis
  • Risk of hypertension
  • Stretched stomach
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self depreciating thoughts, guilt
  • Social & professional failures attributed to weight
  • Feelings of rejection or discrimination

Although compulsive eating is not as life threatening as anorexia or bulimia, it is still an eating disorder that requires treatment.

As you can see, eating disorders disrupt the lives of many people. If you or some one you know is suffering from an eating disorder, don’t wait to get help. Recovering from an eating disorder takes time, but with nutritional, medical, psychological therapy and family support, recovery is possible.

Related Resources:

For more information and support, check out the following links on eating disorders:

For more information:

Go to the Diet and Nutrition health topic.