Eating Disorders

People with eating disorders experience serious disturbances in their eating patterns, such as a severe and unhealthy reduction in their food intake or overeating, as well as extreme concern about body shape or weight. Eating disorders usually develop during adolescence or early adulthood.1 Eating disorders are not due to weak willpower or bad behavior; rather, they are real, treatable illnesses. The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Who has eating disorders?

What are the signs and symptoms?

Anorexia Nervosa — Extreme weight loss and believing that one is fat despite excessive thinness are key features of anorexia. The following behaviors are signs that a person may have anorexia:

Bulimia Nervosa — People who have bulimia regularly binge-eat and then attempt to prevent gaining weight from their binge through purging (e.g., vomiting, abusing laxatives, exercising excessively). The following are signs of bulimia:

What causes eating disorders?

As with most mental illnesses, eating disorders are not caused by just one factor but by a combination of sociocultural, psychological and biological factors.

Sociocultural and psychological factors:

Biological factors:

What other mental illnesses commonly “co-occur” with eating disorders?

Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and alcohol/drug addiction are sometimes found in people with eating disorders. Some of these disorders may influence the development of an eating disorder, and some are consequences of it. Many times, eating and co-occurring disorders reinforce each other, creating a vicious cycle.

What are the long-term effects of eating disorders?

Left untreated, eating disorders may lead to malnutrition; muscle atrophy; dry skin, hair, and nails; dental problems; insomnia or chronic fatigue; ulcers; low blood pressure; diabetes; anemia; kidney, liver, and pancreas failure; osteoporosis and arthritis; infertility; seizures; heart attack; and death:

What treatments are available?

Eating disorders are treatable. The sooner they are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be. Eating disorders require a comprehensive, long-term treatment plan that usually involves individual or family therapy, and that may include medication and even immediate hospitalization. Unfortunately, many people with eating disorders will not admit they are ill and refuse treatment. Support from family and friends is vital to successful treatment and recovery.1

  1. The National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions.” Pub No. 01-
    4901. Accessed Feb. 2002. Netscape:
  2. Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. website. Accessed Feb. 2002. Netscape:
  3. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. Abnormal Psychology, 2nd Edition. McGraw Hill, Boston: 2001.
  4. Something Fishy Music and Publishing: Something Fishy Website. Accessed Feb. 2002. Netscape: