Many in our society think that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, that individuals who suffer with one can easily make a different choice. Family members often think that teenagers are just vying for attention when they refuse to eat or when they binge and purge after eating. In reality, eating disorders are actually very serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors. Obsessions with food and counting calories, body weight, and shape may be an indication of an eating disorder. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a restriction of food intake, leading to a significantly low body weight in context of age, sex, developmental stage, and physical health. Those with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, and there is a disturbance in one’s perception of their body weight and shape. They engage in a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight. Individuals with bulimia nervosa have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. The event is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or relatively normal weight. Binge-eating disorder is demonstrated by recurrent episodes of eating during a period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances. Similar to bulimia nervosa, those with binge-eating disorder lack a sense of control over eating during the period. Unlike bulimia, however, periods of binge-eating are not following by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. Further, this individual may eat much more rapidly than normal, eat until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not feeling hungry, and/or feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward. Those with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese. It is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa commonly occur during adolescence or young adulthood, and rarely before puberty or after the age of 40. The common beginning stage of binge-eating disorder is much more difficult to determine, although it is common among adolescents and college-age populations.
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed (2013). American Psychiatric Publishing: Washington, DC