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Feeding and nourishing ourselves is necessary for physical and emotional survival. Our relationship with food is complicated.

Food is love, history, tradition, and connection. It is powerful, we use it to comfort, soothe, and reward ourselves. Our time and energy is spent cooking, buying, eating, hating, loving, counting, and judging food.

When our relationship with food becomes distressing, exhausting, and a means by which we measure our worth, we may in fact be struggling with an eating disorder. An eating disorder is not oppositional behavior, it is not a weakness or character flaw or a way to get even. It is complex illness where genetics, temperament, and environment play a role.

You are not to blame for your eating disorder and in many ways it provides you comfort and control, so it can be scary to think about addressing or stopping these behaviors. Eating disorders are relentless, and will never be satisfied, they take you out of the world and lead to isolation, fear and sometimes death. You did not choose to have an eating disorder but you can choose to accept treatment.

Definition, Signs, and a Prognosis

What is a problem with eating?
Eating disorders are serious problems with eating habits that cause people to limit, avoid, or binge eat. The stress that comes from eating disorders can make it hard for someone to go about their daily life and be healthy mentally and physically. It can also make it hard to grow, develop, and have children. Even though they can happen at any age, eating disorders usually start in teens. A lot of the time, people with eating disorders also have other problems, like worry or depression.

How common are problems with eating?
Every year, 30 million people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities have an eating disorder. The death rate for eating disorders is the highest of any mental disease. Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies because of an eating disorder.

What age range does eating problem start?
Eating problems can happen to people of any age, but they most often start in adolescence or early adulthood. A study by the NIMH found that the average age of onset for binge eating disease is 21 years old and for bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa it is 18 years old. 3.5% of sexual minority women and 2.1% of sexual minority men who took part in a big national study of college students said they had an eating disorder. One sixteenth of transgender college students said they had an eating problem. A different study found that 13% of women over 50 have eating disorders.

What makes eating problems happen?
Eating disorders aren’t caused by just one thing. Instead, genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors all make it more likely that someone will develop an eating problem.

Some psychological factors could be:


      • Not liking your body

      • Low self-worth

      • Stress and worry

    Some environmental factors are:

    Family problems, like parental breakup and other things that cause stress in the family
    Jobs that need thin bodies and help people lose weight, like dancing and modeling
    Sports that focus on looks, like dancing, rowing, and diving
    Trauma in childhood
    Abuse of power
    Pressure from culture or peers
    Changes in life that are stressful

    How many different kinds of eating problems are there?
    Among the different kinds of eating problems are the following:


        • Anaerea nervosa

        • Nervosa with bulimia

        • Disorder of binge eating

        • Disorder of selective eating

        • OSFED stands for “other specified feeding or eating disorders.” It used to be known as “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS).

        • People with anorexia nervosa limit their food intake to the point where their body weight drops below what is considered average for their age and height.

      Bulimia nervosa includes episodes of eating a lot of food all at once (binging) and then purging by doing things like self-inducing vomiting, using laxatives in the wrong way, fasting, or working out too much. It usually means that the person feels like they have no control over what they eat. When someone binges, they eat a lot of food until they feel sick, and they usually do it very quickly. They don’t self-restrict their eating or do other behaviors that are common in bulimia to make up for it.

      To improve your physical and mental health, it’s important to get help if you think you might have an eating problem.

      What is the difference between bingeing and not eating enough?
      The act of eating and purging is what makes anorexia different from bulimia.

      To “get rid of” the calories, a person with bulimia will either throw up on purpose, abuse laxatives, or work out too much.

      Anorexics either eat very little or not at all for days on end. When they do eat, they eat very little. People with serious anorexia won’t eat at all. In these cases, they will need to be hospitalized so that they can get calories and nutrients through an IV or feeding tube.

      What health problems can come up because of eating disorders?
      In general, eating disorders can have long-lasting effects that can range from tooth and gastrointestinal (GI) issues caused by purging and/or laxative use to death from not eating enough. It’s also possible to lose or thin your hair, stop having periods, get anemia, or become unable to have children. A person may experience depression, anxiety, and other disorders at the same time, such as drug abuse or non-suicidal self-harm (cutting), in the long term.

      What is the best way to help someone with an eating disorder?
      A therapist, nutritionist, doctor, and psychiatrist are usually part of a team method to treating eating disorders. Depending on how bad the eating problem is, there are different levels of care. The best way to treat an eating problem is to look at it as a whole, including the person’s physical and mental health as well as their social and interpersonal functioning.