An eating disorder is a condition or state of mind in which a person develops an unhealthy relationship with food, water, and exercise. This can involve restriction of intake, overindulgence, or any type of hyperfocus on food and water. The intensity of the problem can range from mild to severe. It’s possible, of course, to be concerned about eating and drinking without having an eating disorder. A line is crossed when this focus becomes obsessive to the point of controlling other aspects of life.
Eating disorders can be grouped under three major headings: anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating.
Anorexia is a condition of self-imposed starvation that eventually leads to a body weight at least 15 percent below the expected level for a person’s age and height. It’s characterized by an extreme fear of—or antagonism to—gaining weight and a strikingly distorted body image. Not surprisingly, it has a number of medical consequences, including the interruption of the woman’s monthly cycle, loss of bone density, decrease in body temperature, reduced capacity of the stomach, dry skin, yellowing of the fingernails, thinning of scalp hair, and the development of a fine hair growth on the body called lanugo. Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition with lethal risks.
This eating disorder is characterized by a behavior known as bingeing and purging. During a binge, an individual quickly consumes an enormous amount of food, often without even chewing or tasting it. The resulting physical and emotional discomfort will provoke a purge, usually involving self-induced vomiting. The bingeing and purging cycles may occur a few times a week or, in severe cases, several times daily. Among the serious medical consequences of bulimia are the decay of teeth and inflammation of the throat and salivary glands due to repeated exposure to stomach acid, severe constipation, and potentially dangerous disturbances in heart rhythm due to the loss of potassium from vomiting.
Compulsive overeating is bulimia without the purging element. It’s often linked with depression and can be understood as a way of self-medicating intense psychological pain. The depression-overeating connection is a classic example of a vicious cycle: the deeper the depression, the more a person eats in an attempt to dull the sense of despair; the more she eats, the more weight she gains; the heavier she becomes, the more depressed and hopeless she feels about the possibility of shedding the unwanted pounds.