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Eating disorders are some of the most challenging mental illnesses. Untreated eating disorders can result in severe medical complications and even death in certain cases. As scientific studies suggest that nearly one in 20 people will experience symptoms of an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
Eating disorders are often underdiagnosed which can delay necessary treatment. There is no specific test (e.g., x-ray or blood test) that can diagnosis an eating disorder. Rather, a diagnosis is made by a trained clinician based on the signs and symptoms of these illnesses. While many people may experience unhealthy eating habits and have concerns with their body image, people with eating disorders generally experience severe dysfunction due to their symptoms.
In general, treatment of these challenging mental illnesses involves a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians to help an individual dealing with an eating disorder. This usually includes a primary care doctor (e.g., pediatrician or internist), a nutritionist, a therapist and a psychiatrist. Working together, members of the treatment team can help to meet the medical, nutritional and psychiatric needs of individuals with an eating disorder. In the vast majority of cases, psychopharmacological medications are not curative treatments for people with eating disorders. In certain cases, some people may find that medications are a helpful part of their treatment. Eating disorders frequently occur in people with other mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse issues. For people with a co-existing mental illness, effective treatment of this second condition is critically important for proper treatment of their eating disorder. Historically, eating disorders were thought to be conditions that were limited to upper-middle class, teenage Caucasian females. Over the past few decades, it is clear that women of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are confronted with the challenges of eating disorders. Males are less likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders than females, but it has been suggested that as awareness grows, more males are being treated for these severe mental illnesses.
Anorexia nervosa is a serious and potentially life-threatening mental illness. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder defined by an inability to maintain one’s body weight within 15 percent of their Ideal Body Weight (IBW). Other essential features of this disorder include an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted image of one’s body, denial of the seriousness of the illness, and—in females—amenorrhea, an absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles when they were otherwise expected to occur.
People with bulimia nervosa are overly concerned with their body’s shape and weight—they engage in detrimental behaviors in an attempt to control their body image. Bulimia nervosa is often characterized by a destructive pattern of binging (eating too much unhealthy food) and inappropriate, reactionary behaviors (called purging) to control one’s weight following these episodes. Purging behaviors are potentially dangerous and can consist of a wide variety of actions “to get rid of everything I ate.” This can include self-induced vomiting and the abuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics (e.g., caffeine). Other behaviors such as “fasting” or restrictive dieting following binge-eating episodes are also common, as well as excessive exercising.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating that is characterized by eating, within a discreet time, an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat, and a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode. The binge eating episodes are associated with three or more of the following: eating much more rapidly than usual; eating until feeling uncomfortably full; eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating; and feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards. These episodes occur at least once a week on average for three months or longer.
National Eating Disorder Collaboration (Australia)