Eating Disorders: What Are the Differences and How Can We Help?

Eating Disorders: What Are the Differences and How Can We Help?

Several celebrities have made news in the past few weeks by announcing they have struggled with eating disorders in the past. Lady Gaga announced she has fought binge eating since she was 15 and Katie Couric recently stunned fans when she announced that she has struggled with bulimia in the past. While eating disorders are most often thought of as an illness that affects teenage girls, it is an illness that affects people of all ages, including boys and men.

Eating Disorders: What Are the Differences and How Can We Help?Eating Disorder Definitions

All eating disorders and pose serious health problems. Simply put, eating disorders are a serious illness that result in substantial disturbances to normal eating patterns. In many cases, this type of behavior disturbance begins as an effort to simply start eating less or more food than normal. However, at some point, the behavior spirals out of control and the person is unable to control the impulse to eat more or less than is healthy. Often, the person with the disorder also has a distorted image of how their body appears or how much they actually weigh.

The most frequent diagnosis is Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), which means that the person may meet most, but not all, of the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. Eating disorders are very real, treatable conditions. Often, they exist with other medical conditions, such as substance abuse, anxiety and depression. Left untreated, eating disorders can pose potential danger to life and overall health.


Anorexia is characterized by restricted eating or an unhealthy focus on being thin. People with anorexia may demonstrate extreme fear of being fat, they appear emaciated and they highly restrict their food intake. Other signs include excessive exercising, a large focus on calorie intake and distorted body image perceptions. In women and girls, menstruation may stop.

One form of anorexia also includes behaviors to purge foods and calories from their system. They may use laxatives, induce vomiting and use diuretics or enemas. Over time other symptoms can include:

• Thinning hair
• Dry skin
• Yellowing skin
• Fine hair appearing all over the body
• Muscle wasting and weakness
• Severe constipation
• Brittle hair and nails
• Low blood pressure
• Heart damage
• Low heart rate
• Low respiration rate
• Organ failure
• Infertility
• Fatigue


Bulimia is another eating disorder that focuses on eating large quantities of food and then purging them soon after consumption. Foods that are easy to eat are frequently eaten, such as ice cream, mashed potatoes or other soft foods. Often, binging behavior is followed by feelings of shame and self disgust. The purging behavior is engaged in secretly to hide it from others and the binge/purge cycle can happen anywhere from a few times a week to several times a day. Purging is induced through vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, excessive exercising or a combination of any of these activities.

Other common symptoms include:

• Chronically sore or inflamed throat
• Swollen salivary glands
• Worn tooth enamel
• Acid reflux disorder
• Intestinal distress
• Dehydration
• Electrolyte imbalances

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia in that large quantities of foods are consumed at one sitting. However, unlike bulimia, the food is not then purged afterward. Patients with binge eating disorder often feel negative and disgusted with themselves afterward. Often, they are overweight and obese due to their eating habits. They are at high risk for developing heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and other weight-related health problems.

Eating disorders can be treated with medical intervention. Often, treatment includes a combination of psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, medical care and medication. In some cases, patients are hospitalized to address problems of malnutrition and other related serious health threats.

If you believe you or someone you love has an eating disorder, it is important to provide support and treatment. Remember, that we must eat to survive. Instead of focusing on weight, help them focus on behaviors around food and developing healthy attitudes about food and eating.

Have you struggled with your relationship with food? Do you think as a society we tell people the right messages about being fat or thin in our society?

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