We all need to eat. Food is a primary component of human life. A part of cultivating a healthy lifestyle is paying attention to what one eats, nourishing the body with wholesome real food. But when awareness of the food we eat turns into an obsession, our health can suffer and our quality of life can seriously decline. Eating disorders can be very dangerous, and even deadly, if not recognized and treated in time.

What Are Eating Disorders?

An eating disorder is when a person has an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, and body image. The person is so preoccupied with food, either trying to avoid it completely or being unable to stop eating, that his or her work, relationships, and health suffer.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are caused by a variety of factors. Biology seems to play a role in many cases. People who have a family member with some sort of eating disorder are significantly more likely to develop one. Emotional and psychological health challenges are a huge contributing factor to eating disorders, and people with depression, anxiety, or who grew up in an emotionally volatile home are at greater risk for disordered eating.

One of the leading causes of disordered eating is social pressure. The largest populations of disordered eaters are adolescent girls and women in their early 20s. Through advertising and the beauty industry, society places huge pressure on girls and women to maintain a particular body type. This cuts at self-esteem and makes it all too tempting to starve or purge to attempt to reach this false ideal.

Eating Disorder Symptoms

Eating disorder symptoms vary with the type of disorder. Limiting eating disorders are categorized by strict control of food intake and a preoccupation with counting calories. This usually leads to extreme weight loss, excessive exercise, reduced or stopped menstruation, stomach pain, and severe malnutrition.

The other main category of eating disorders is bingeing disorders. Bingeing disorders are categorized by episodes of over-eating, which may or may not be followed by self-induced purging (vomiting). Bingers are preoccupied with food, and unable to stop themselves from eating large amounts of food.

In all cases, people with eating disorders tend to feel shame and guilt about their bodies and their relationships to food. They rarely eat in front of other people, especially as the disease progresses, and they feel like food is an overwhelming force in their lives.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are three main types of disorders, with some sub categories. Anorexia nervosa, usually just called anorexia, is the most common and deadliest. Anorexics strive to eat as little as possible. They usually feel like they are fat even as they become increasingly underweight. Anorexia can lead to severe malnutrition, osteoporosis, anemia, brain damage, organ failure, and death.

Bulimia nervosa is categorized by eating large amounts of food and then purging (vomiting). Over time bulimia can lead to a chronically inflamed throat, worn and decayed teeth, acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal challenges, and severe dehydration. Bulimics usually also have a strongly negative self-image and a love/hate relationship with food. Both disorders give a sense of being in control as the person actually loses control to the cycle of either starving or over-eating and purging.

Binge-eating is also an overeating disorder, but binge eaters do not purge. Because they retain the excess calories, binge eaters tend to be overweight or obese. Over time binge eating can damage the heart and raise blood pressure, as well as contribute to all the disease caused or worsened by obesity.

Eating Disorder Treatments

Treating eating disorders is a very personal thing. Depending on the disorder, patients are usually prescribed a combination of psychotherapy, nutrition counseling, group therapy, and in some cases medication. Anorexics seem to benefit from counseling that addresses emotional health and body image, and bulimics seem to get the most benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Preventing Eating Disorders

Preventing eating disorders will ultimately require a fundamental shift in how the world thinks and talks about food, bodies, beauty, and health. As long as human bodies, especially female bodies (the vast majority of eating disorder sufferers are young females) are treated as perfectable commodities, the likelihood of impressionable, insecure young people developing eating disorders is high.

But like other diseases, the best defense is self-love. Engaging in practices to increase ones self-worth. Caring for the body through healthy food and appropriate amounts of exercise, and finding ways to build self-esteem that have nothing to do with food. Learning to love your body.

If you are parent or teacher, you can help protect your children from eating disorders by encouraging their gifts and praising them for aspects of their personality and intelligence not for looks or athletic performance. Create an environment where children and teens feel accepted just as they are.

Eating disorders are medical conditions that affect many people all over the developed world. An unhealthy preoccupation with food that takes over everything, eating disorders can destroy health and ones ability to enjoy life. But they can be treated, and most people who experience an eating disorder can recover completely if they receive treatment in time. If you feel like you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, speak to a knowledgeable health care provider.