Eating Disorders for Parents: General Information

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Eating Disorders Awareness

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that affect a person’s physical and emotional health and involve intense emotions and behaviors related to food. These are serious illnesses and can be fatal if left untreated.

There are several types of eating disorders and it’s easy to get them confused because symptoms may overlap. The types include anorexia nervosa, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED) which was formerly called “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS).

Anorexia Nervosa (pronounced: an–or–rex–e–ah nerve–o–sah) involves food restriction (limiting or not having certain foods or food groups in a person who is significantly low weighted). People with anorexia drastically limit their food intake and have an intense fear of gaining weight, even though they may be underweight or they are losing weight. Anorexia nervosa often presents during early adolescence (11–13 years of age) or during the later high school years (17–18 years of age), when a teen is preparing to go to college, but can occur in people of any age. Someone with anorexia may or may not purge.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a new feeding and eating disorder diagnosis that is given to people who have significant eating problems that lead to consequences such as weight loss, inadequate growth, or a significant nutritional deficiency. Unlike people with other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, individuals with ARFID do not have significant body image concerns.

Bulimia Nervosa (pronounced: bull–e–me–ah nerve–o–sah) involves cycles of binge eating followed by a purging behavior. People with bulimia will eat an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time and then purge by vomiting, using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics, or by exercising excessively as a way to counteract the binge and avoid gaining weight.

Binge eating disorder involves eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time. People with binge eating disorder feel out of control during these eating episodes and often feel intense shame afterwards. People with binge eating disorder do not purge after binging.

Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED) involve some combination of symptoms of the other eating disorders such as an intense fear of weight gain and preoccupation with food (thinking about food or having food related thoughts most of the day). Atypical anorexia nervosa and purging disorder fall under this category. Many individuals with OSFED have symptoms of the other eating disorders, but may not meet the exact criteria

Disordered eating is a term used to describe the condition when someone doesn’t have all the symptoms of a specific type of eating disorder, but their eating patterns and behaviors put them at risk for developing an eating disorder. For example, extreme dieting can lead to an eating disorder.

Prevalence rates or how often eating disorders occur varies with each disorder. Binge eating disorder and OSFED are more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa occurs in less than 1% of American teens, similar to bulimia, but binge eating disorder occurs in about 2% of teens and OSFED and disordered eating may be as high as 15%.

Myth: Only girls and women have eating disorders.
Truth: Although girls are more likely to have eating disorders than boys, eating disorders do affect males. Males playing sports with weight restrictions such as gymnastics, swimming, rowing, wrestling and track are at higher risk, but can occur in anyone. Guys with eating disorders are often focused on gaining muscle mass, so it might appear that they are simply “getting in shape”.