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Eating disorders involve extreme emotions and thought processes that lead to unhealthy behaviors surrounding food and weight. A number of types of eating disorders exist, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorder, abbreviated as OSFED. Research has shown that as many as 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life. A person afflicted with an eating disorder usually experiences disruptive emotional and physical issues that can even be life-threatening. Treatment of eating disorders involves psychotherapy in conjunction with medical and nutritional therapy to restore physical health.
Scientists are searching for information about potential biological causes of eating disorders. One possibility is that neurotransmitters responsible for sending brain signals may become unbalanced in some people. For example, serotonin levels are connected with anxiety and depression, and this may also play a role in eating disorders. In a person with an eating disorder, serotonin may not reach some brain cells, which could have a negative impact. Scientists are also exploring a possible genetic link with eating disorders, which may place some people at an elevated risk for developing this type of mental illness. It’s also possible that some people have an immune system abnormality that causes the body to be unable to control eating and weight.
A number of psychological issues could contribute to the development of eating disorders. Someone with strong feelings of inadequacy or a lack of control over life circumstances might turn to restrictive eating or purging to compensate for these uncomfortable feelings. Low self-esteem and depression may also make someone vulnerable to eating disorders. Other potential issues that elevate the risk for eating disorders include anxiety, stress, loneliness, and even unresolved anger.
Social and environmental causes may also be responsible for some eating disorders. Traumatic events such as abuse can begin a cycle of shame and guilt that leads to intense feelings of body dissatisfaction and loss of control. Some people have problems interacting with others socially, and they turn to dieting and purging to compensate for these difficulties. It’s possible that family dynamics may play a role in this mental illness. However, scientists have concluded that these dynamics work together with other causes, and they do not cause an eating disorder on their own. Cultural ideals of thinness may also contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Someone with anorexia nervosa restricts food intake, which leads to excessive weight loss. An anorexic typically shows an intense fear of gaining weight and works obsessively to prevent weight gain. Anorexia nervosa also involves a distorted body image and a strong connection between self-esteem and body image. The main warning signs of anorexia nervosa include preoccupation with dieting and dramatic weight loss.
Bulimia nervosa involves disordered eating that may include binging and then self-induced vomiting to counteract the excessive calories consumed. The bulimic tends to feel very out of control when caught in the cycle of binging and purging. Similar to the anorexic, a person with bulimia usually has a strong connection between self-esteem and body image. Warning signs of bulimia nervosa include signs of eating excessive amounts of food followed by visits to the bathroom immediately after eating. The bulimic person may also engage in excessive exercising to burn calories.
Someone with binge eating disorder may eat an excessive amount of food to the point of feeling uncomfortably full. However, the person is unable to stop eating despite the fullness. Binge eating disorder involves an overeating episode at least one time each week for a period of at least three months. A binge usually takes less than two hours, and the person may eat very quickly even when not hungry. Binge eating disorder does not involve purging.
Someone who engages in compulsive overeating usually has trouble controlling eating behavior and tends to eat more than necessary on a regular basis. A compulsive overeater usually has a weight problem and may experience strong food cravings. A compulsive overeater does not necessarily binge on large amounts of food, however. A person with this problem may overeat throughout the day or evening.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified
Some eating disorders fall into the category of “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” also known as EDNOS. A patient may receive this diagnosis if their symptoms do not fit precisely with those of other types of eating disorders. Physicians now apply the diagnosis “other specified feeding or eating disorder,” or OSFED, to patients instead of the EDNOS diagnosis. This diagnosis applies to people who experience distress or impairment with regard to eating or body image but their symptoms do not fit the precise criteria for other eating disorders.