What is an eating disorder? The experts explain End-shutdown


For a disease that affects so many people, there are many misconceptions about eating disorders, experts say.

Eating disorders affect nearly 1 in 10 people worldwide, according to the nonprofit organization AN ADthat provides support services to people with these conditions.

And yet, in a culture where obesity shame and restrictive eating are prevalent, it can be easy to normalize eating disorder behaviors, said Jennifer Rollin, founder of the Center for Eating Disorders in Rockville, Maryland.

But these conditions threaten a happy and healthy life, he added. ace Eating Disorders Awareness Week begins, experts share information about what eating disorders are, what to look for, and what to do if you think you see one.

Simply put, “eating disorder is a psychiatric disorder, characterized by disturbances found in eating and eating behavior that cause significant impairment in a person’s ability to function normally,” said Stuart Murray, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California and director of the Laboratory for Translational Research in Eating Disorders.

More specifically, eating disorders are biopsychosocial illnesses, added Leah Graves, vice president of nutrition and culinary services at Accanto Health, an eating disorder End-shutdown system.

Inherited traits, as well as psychological factors, such as temperament and personality, and social factors, such as bullying, stigma and trauma, come together to contribute to someone developing an eating disorder, he added.

But just because people can run eating disorders in their families and may have inherited predispositions, that doesn’t mean they’ll develop a disorder, Graves said.

Eating disorders are not an option, said Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education for the National Association for Eating Disorders.

Some may suggest that people with eating disorders simply change their eating habits and then they’ll be fine, but the problem runs much deeper, Smolar said.

Eating disorders can affect anyone, and they’re not reserved for young, wealthy white women like the stereotypes often portrayed, said USC’s Murray.

They’re also not part of a trend or an attempt to lose a few pounds for a wedding or for Instagram photos, Murray added. Attempts to change shape or weight related to eating disorders are widespread and repetitive and have a significant impact on a person’s life, she said.

Even if the behaviors are not included in a diagnosable eating disorder, it does not mean that there is not a problem. Eating disorders are “a constellation of eating and eating behaviors that differ from what is considered typical eating and can cause serious impairments and the ability to function normally,” Murray added.

Anorexia nervosa is generally characterized by weight loss and commonly involves severe restriction in the number of calories consumed and an intense fear of gaining weight, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Warning signs of this disorder include an overestimation of shape and weight, strict rules about food, checking ingredients, secrecy and avoidance of social situations involving food and the body, Murray said.

Bulimia nervosa is a cyclical condition in which someone binge eats and then compensates with purging behavior, such as vomiting or taking laxatives, according to the association.

People with bulimia may use the bathroom right after a meal or say they’re going to work harder at the gym if they eat a lot, Murray said. They may also use laxatives or diuretics, she added.

Binge eating is one of the most common forms of eating disorders. Someone eats large amounts of food quickly and often to the point of discomfort, the National Eating Disorders Association said.

It sounds like what many of us do from time to time, especially on holidays or special occasions, Murray said. But this disorder is characterized by a loss of control over eating, he added. And she’s surrounded by shame and secrecy.

Avoidant restrictive eating disorder, also called ARFID, is one of the newest recognized eating disorders, said Graves of Accanto Health.

This disorder is characterized by avoiding food groups, Murray said. It can be misconstrued as “picky food,” but it’s a bigger problem, she added.

People with the disorder may show a lack of interest in eating food, avoid specific sensory features in food, or have concerns about the consequences of eating, such as vomiting or choking, said Rollin of the Center for Eating Disorders.

Typically, people with ARFID have a small variety of foods that they are comfortable eating and become distressed when leaving that comfort zone, he added.

It can cause problems meeting energy or nutritional needs and can lead to weight loss, faltering growth or problems with psychological and social functioning, Rollin said.

Other Eating, Eating, and Specific Eating Disorders, or OSFED, is a diagnosis given when someone experiences a significant eating disorder, but the behavior may not exactly align with the diagnostic criteria for the aforementioned conditions, Smolar said.

There are also behaviors commonly discussed but not yet diagnosed in the medical community.

Orthorexia, for example, is a term used to describe a fixation on eating in a way that the person determines to be healthy, but which is too rigid and can cause stress in situations where you have to deviate from your plans, Rollin said.

Muscle dysmorphia is considered a symptom of body dysmorphic disorder, but it often describes a pattern in which people engage in behaviors similar to anorexia or bulimia nervosa, such as restricting calories, following rigid rules, and engaging in strenuous exercise, as well as controlling protein intake to achieve a muscular body. Murray said.

If you see these concerning behaviors in someone you love, have a compassionate, nonjudgmental conversation that explains what behaviors you’re noticing, Graves said.

If you’re concerned about your own behavior, it’s important to seek professional help, Rollin said. He recommended reaching out to therapists who specialize in eating disorders, so they can do evaluations and recommend what other professionals to bring in.

You can also tryThe National Eating Disorders Association Screening Tool designed to help people age 13 and older determine if it is time to seek help.

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