A Nurse's Guide to Anorexia and other Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a type of mental illness in which a person develops a problematic relationship with food that results in abnormal eating habits and often distorted views regarding their body. This can be fatal if not caught and treated properly. Although these disorders are generally associated with women and girls, men also suffer from eating disorders. Three types are considered the most common: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. People who are concerned that someone they care about has an eating disorder should learn what the differences are between the different types and what can be done to treat them.

Potential Causes and Triggers

Eating disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, psychological, social, and behavioral factors. Often, low self-esteem and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance are common contributing factors, as are society’s views on beauty or attractiveness, which are commonly reflected in movies and in print. Substance abuse, teasing about a person’s body, and physical trauma such as abuse, molestation, or rape are also potential triggers.

Warning Signs

Someone with an eating disorder will likely show certain warning signs, though these signs can vary depending on which specific disorder the individual has. Some obvious symptoms to watch out for include a drastic decrease in body weight, feelings of anxiousness around food, a refusal to eat, eating large quantities of food in one sitting, and disappearing for long periods into the bathroom following meals. Some may have a distorted view of their body shape or size, and women may begin to have missed menstrual cycles. While these are all potential signs associated with eating disorders, they may also indicate the existence of other health problems.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is an eating disorder in which people severely limit the amount of food that they consume. When they do eat, they may use laxatives, diuretics, or even enemas in an effort to control the number of calories that they take in, or they may exercise excessively to burn the calories away. They have an extreme fear of weight gain, and the way that they see their body is often distorted. Despite their fear of being overweight, people with anorexia are extremely underweight.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia or bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person eats large quantities of food secretly, then purges it by forcing themselves to throw up. In some cases, the individual will not purge the food but will exercise excessively or go on a fast to get rid of the unwanted calories. People who have bulimia also tend to have a harsh view of their body. Unlike individuals who suffer from anorexia, they often have a normal body weight or are slightly above normal.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder, which is also referred to as compulsive eating, is considered the most common of the eating disorders in the U.S. People who have this disorder may eat compulsively either for a short or lengthy period of time. Because they feel out of control while eating, they are often overcome with feelings of shame and guilt once they’ve stopped. Binge eaters often have a higher body weight than people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia.

Treatment and Recovery

Treatment of eating disorders is provided by a combination of sources, including one’s doctor, a mental health professional, and a dietitian. A person may receive psychotherapy to help them develop healthier habits. Types of psychotherapy used for eating disorders include cognitive behavioral therapy and family-based therapy. In some cases, hospitalization is necessary if the individual has had the condition for a long period of time and they are suffering from malnutrition or other related health problems. The urge to binge or purge may be controlled by the use of medication, although it does not cure the eating disorder. Additionally, people being treated for an eating disorder will likely need nutrition education.