Nutrition Column – Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

It’s estimated that about 1 million Americans have an eating disorder. Of those suffering with one of the three most common eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder – as many as 20 percent may die from medical complications resulting from their disorder. Eating disorders can be difficult to treat and cure. Early detection is essential. The earlier a person gets help, the better the chance for recovery.

Do you know someone who may have an eating disorder? Take a look at the symptoms, warning signs, who’s at risk and where to get help.

Anorexia Nervosa: Also called the "starvation sickness," anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People with anorexia deny their hunger and often refuse to eat. If untreated, this self-starvation process causes the body to slowly start wasting away because it’s not getting enough calories or nutrients. In turn, several medical problems can occur, including abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, osteoporosis, muscle loss and weakness, dehydration, fatigue and dry hair and skin.

An obsession over weight, food, calories and dieting along with an intense fear of becoming fat are some of the early warning signs of anorexia. Denial of hunger, dramatic weight loss, irregular menstrual cycles in females and the development of fine, downy hair on the arms and face are all signs a person is suffering from anorexia.

Bulimia Nervosa: Characterized by binge eating and purging, people with bulimia typically eat large quantities of food in short periods of time without regard for hunger or fullness, and then either self-induce vomiting or use laxatives or diuretics to compensate for the excessive calories consumed.

Resulting health consequences may include dehydration from diuretic use, inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting, tooth decay from stomach acids regurgitated during frequent vomiting, and irregular bowel movements and constipation from laxative use.

People who suffer from bulimia often feel out of control when they eat. They may become a secretive eater, turning down food at dinner, only to raid the refrigerator at night. Alternatively, they may eat an enormous dinner, then disappear after the meal, often to the bathroom. As bulimia progresses, discolored or stained teeth and swelling of the cheeks or jaw area may develop.

Binge Eating Disorder: Also referred to as compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder is a newly recognized eating disorder involving frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating over a relatively short period of time. It differs from bulimia in that purging does not follow the episodes of uncontrolled eating. Binge eating disorder can result in health problems similar to those associated with obesity including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

People who suffer from binge eating disorder have a tendency to eat large quantities of food rapidly, without really tasting the food. They sometimes prefer to eat alone. They tend to have feelings of being "out of control" during binges and have feelings of shame, disgust or guilt after binges.

Who’s at risk: Although just about anybody can develop an eating disorder, females, adolescents and athletes are at highest risk. About 95 percent of anorexia patients, 80 percent of bulimia patients and 60 percent of binge eating disorder patients are women or girls. With their changing bodies, teenage girls are especially vulnerable. In fact, it is estimated that one out of every 250 teenage girls will develop some symptoms of anorexia. If that teen (girl or boy) is an athlete, especially a dancer, gymnast, wrestler or runner who must control his or her weight, the risk of developing an eating disorder is even higher.

Where to get help: Eating disorders require professional treatment. Enlist assistance from the family physician, a registered dietitian, a social worker and/or a mental health counselor. Support groups for the patient and for family members are also available. Ask your local hospital or mental health center for a referral.