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Eating disorders: Facts and warning signs

Eating disorders are common. They can lead to serious physical and emotional health risks. They have the highest rates of death of any psychiatric illness. Cardiac arrest and suicide are among the leading causes of mortality among those with such disorders.

Anorexia nervosa affects about eight million people in the United States, seven million of whom are young women. Anorexia affects approximately one percent of adolescents. Bulimia affects two to five percent.

Eating disorders are more common in girls than boys. However, there has been a noted increase in the number of adolescent males being treated for eating disorders. Among adolescent and young adult females, eating disorders are one of the most common chronic illnesses.

While eating disorders may lead to dramatic weight loss, they may also be accompanied by weight gain or no change in weight at all. Eating disorders represent a spectrum of emotional illnesses, characterized by the patient’s struggle with self-acceptance and body dissatisfaction.

Dieting, specially repeatedly, is an important risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. Early recognition and intervention are helpful steps in managing these devastating illnesses.

Warning signs

If someone you care about exhibits any of the following behaviors, he or she may have an eating disorder. It is important to know the warning signs. A health care professional can make an official diagnosis.

Anorexia nervosa

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods
  • Comments about feeling fat or overweight, despite weight loss
  • Anxiety about weight gain or being fat
  • Denial of hunger
  • Development of food rituals. For example, eating foods in a certain order, excessive chewing, or rearranging food on a plate.
  • Consistent excuses to avoid meals or situations involving food
  • Excessive or rigid exercise regimen
  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities

Bulimia

  • Evidence of binge eating, including the disappearance of large amounts of foods in short periods of time, or wrappers and containers indicating consumption of large amounts of food
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Signs or smells of vomiting
  • Presence of wrappers or packages of laxatives and diuretics
  • Unusual swelling of cheek or jaw area
  • Creation of complex lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions