What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious conditions that can have a lifelong impact on a person’s health. Having an eating disorder can be a difficult and painful experience, but recovery is possible.

People often think that eating disorders are about food or a person’s weight or appearance. In reality, eating disorders are not about food — they’re much more connected to how a person feels about themselves and things that are going on in their life.

Here are some things you should know about eating disorders:

  • eating disorders are common among young people
  • people with eating disorders can be all shapes and sizes
  • while an eating disorder may start as a diet, it’s not about food
  • if you have an eating disorder, it’s not your fault
  • people with eating disorders need and deserve kindness and support from others
  • help is available

Types of eating disorders

There are three main eating disorders:

1. Anorexia nervosa

People with anorexia lose a significant amount of weight by restricting the amount of food they eat. People struggling with anorexia may have very strict rules around food and exercise, and usually have a distorted body image. They see themselves as “heavier,” even if they are underweight for their age and height. No matter how thin they get or how many pounds they lose, it never seems to be enough. People with anorexia are also intensely afraid of gaining weight.

2. Bulimia nervosa

People with bulimia binge on large amounts of food and then purge (or get rid of the food) by throwing up, taking laxatives, exercising or restricting what they eat afterward. People with bulimia feel out of control when eating and ashamed and guilty after eating.

3. Binge-eating disorder

People with binge-eating disorder eat large amounts of food in a relatively short time, but unlike people with bulimia, they don’t purge it. People with binge-eating disorder feel out of control during a binge and ashamed and guilty afterward.

Health effects of eating disorders

Eating disorders can have short-term and long-term effects on your health. Some of the effects of restricting food, binging, purging and excessive exercise include:

  • blackouts or fainting spells
  • weakness or fatigue
  • thinning hair
  • fine hair on the face or back
  • low body temperature (feeling cold all the time)
  • stomach pain or ongoing problems with digestion
  • irregular heart rate

In addition to physical effects, eating disorders can negatively impact the way you feel about yourself and influence your relationships with family and friends. For example, an eating disorder can make you want to spend more time alone and withdraw from your family and friends (especially around mealtimes).

If you think you might have an eating disorder, help is available. You can always call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

Why do people develop eating disorders?

An eating disorder may seem like it’s about food and weight, but it’s commonly a way of coping with problems and emotions.

Sometimes people who are overwhelmed by problems or emotions control their food or their weight as a way to deal with their feelings. This can be the first step in developing an eating disorder.

There can be a number of things that put young people at risk of developing an eating disorder, including:

•    Dieting

An eating disorder often starts with a diet. What may seem like a small weight-loss goal turns into excessive dieting and an obsession with losing more and more weight.

•    Self-esteem issues

People with poor self-esteem often dislike who they are and feel like they are “not good enough.” In a culture where success is often measured by physical appearance, losing weight can seem like a way to feel better about yourself.

•    Negative body image

Body image is how you feel about your body. People with negative body image can focus too much on “improving” their body by controlling their eating, weight and physical activity. A negative body image can also make it easier for someone to believe the messages they see in popular culture — like in magazines and music videos — about what bodies “should” look like.

•    A difficult experience

An extremely sudden or difficult experience such as losing a close friend, having a family member with a serious illness, moving to a new town/school or experiencing abuse/assault can put someone at risk for developing an eating disorder.

•    Other struggles

Eating disorders can be a way for people to cope with difficulties in their personal lives. Family problems, social pressures and school stress can all contribute to eating disorders.

Need more information or support? You can contact Kids Help Phone 24/7.