Eating disorders are psychological disorders that have physical symptoms and complications and can, in some cases, be life-threatening. Many people think of anorexia nervosa when they think of an eating disorder. They might envision a very skinny teen girl who is obsessed with her weight. But eating disorders are much more complicated than limiting what you eat in order to lose weight.
Eating disorders aren’t just a “girl” thing. According to the National Eating Disorder Foundation, around 10 million men will experience an eating disorder sometime in their lifetime. Although this is about one-half of the number of women with an eating disorder, it is still a significant number. Because the stereotype of a person with an eating disorder is a thin, white teen girl, males often go undiagnosed.
Having an eating disorder is not a choice; it is a mental illness. You can’t tell someone with anorexia, “Just eat something,” any more than you can tell someone in a wheelchair to “Just get up and walk.”
There are many types of eating disorders. The most commonly known eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Other types include:
- Binge eating disorder: Episodes of eating large amounts of food while feeling like you are unable to stop yourself
- Pica: Persistently eating nonfood items such as paint or paper
- Orthorexia: An unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy or pure foods
If you have an eating disorder that doesn’t fit into one of these categories, you might have what is referred to as "other specified feeding and eating disorder/eating disorder not otherwise specified."
The exact cause of eating disorders is not yet understood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, scientists believe it is a combination of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. They still don’t know why one person develops an eating disorder while another, perhaps even from the same family, might not.
You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder by their appearance. Not everyone who is very skinny or underweight has an eating disorder. People with eating disorders can be underweight, normal weight, or overweight. A diagnosis is based on behaviors that may lead to changes in weight.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate. Often, eating disorders develop during the teen years, but can also develop in younger children or older adults. People of all socioeconomic groups and ethnicities can develop an eating disorder.
Eating disorders can be life-threatening. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to The Center for Eating Disorders. Research shows that there is a mortality rate of between 3.9 and 5.2 percent, depending on the type of eating disorder. The Center for Eating Disorders estimates that this might be as high as 20 percent for those who do not receive treatment.
People with eating disorders often have normal family lives). Previously, there was a mistaken belief that girls with eating disorders usually grew up in households with strict, overbearing, or hypercritical parents. It is now known that eating disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including genetic, biological, psychological, and social factors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.