What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become pre-occupied with food and their body weight.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is diagnosed when patients weigh at least 15 percent less than the normal healthy weight expected for their height. Hallmarks of anorexia include:

  • Fear of being “fat”
  • Problems with body image or denial of low body weight
  • Limited food intake

People with anorexia nervosa don't maintain a normal weight because they refuse to eat enough. Over time, they may develop the following symptoms as the body goes into starvation:

  • Menstrual periods cease
  • Mild anemia; and muscles, including the heart muscle, waste away
  • Severe constipation
  • Osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) through loss of calcium
  • Hair/nails become brittle
  • Skin dries and can take on a yellowish cast
  • Drop in blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse rates
  • Internal body temperature falls, causing person to feel cold all the time
  • Depression and lethargy

Bulimia Nervosa

Individuals with bulimia nervosa can be slightly underweight, normal weight, overweight or even obese.  They are usually not as underweight as people with anorexia nervosa. Patients with bulimia binge eat frequently. During these times sufferers may eat an astounding amount of food in a short time, often consuming thousands of calories that are high in sugars, carbohydrates and fat. They can eat very rapidly, ingesting food so quickly that they often don't even taste it.

Many people don’t know when a family member or friend has bulimia nervosa because people almost always hide their binges and they don't become drastically thin.  But bulimia nervosa does have symptoms that should raise red flags:

  • Salivary glands in the neck and below the jaw become swollen; cheeks and face often become puffy, causing sufferers to develop a “chipmunk” looking face
  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Tooth enamel wears off; teeth begin to decay from exposure to stomach acids
  • Constant vomiting causes gastroesophageal reflux disorder
  • Laxative abuse causes irritation, leading to intestinal problems
  • Diuretics (water pills) cause kidney problems
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids

Bulimia can lead to rare but potentially fatal complications including  gastric rupture, esophageal tears, and cardiac arrhythmias.

Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorder have episodes of binge eating in which they consume very large quantities of food in a brief period and feel out of control during the binge. Unlike people with bulimia, they do not try to vomit, use laxatives or engage in fasting to get rid of the food.  Binge eating disorder is chronic and can lead to serious health complications, particularly severe obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.