Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(2):311-312

What is an eating disorder?

If you have an eating disorder, you are very concerned about the way your body looks, and you use food to control your emotions. You want very much to be thin and are afraid of becoming fat.

Eating disorders result from a strong sense of emotional need or pain. If you have an eating disorder, you might think that you will be happy if you reach a certain weight. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

If you have anorexia nervosa, you are underweight but think you are overweight. You might try to lose weight by not eating much, eating only certain kinds of food, or exercising too much.

If you have bulimia nervosa, you might be normal weight or overweight but are not happy with your weight. If you have bulimia, you will eat a lot of food, then try to get rid of it by making yourself vomit or by taking water pills or laxatives. This is called binging and purging.

Why are eating disorders dangerous?

Eating disorders can cause serious medical problems, and they can even kill you. They can damage your heart, skin, muscles, teeth, and stomach. If you have an eating disorder, you might develop a condition called osteoporosis (say: oss-tee-oh-poor-oh-sis), where your bones weaken and break very easily. You might also develop a serious mental illness.

What are the symptoms of eating disorders?

If you have an eating disorder, you will probably spend a lot of time worrying about how you look. You might feel guilty when you eat or think you haven't exercised enough. You might feel bad about yourself when you think you weigh too much. Other people might tell you that you have lost too much weight, even though you think you weigh too much.

You might feel tired. If you are a woman, you might stop having periods. Fine hair might start growing on your body. If you use water pills or laxatives to lose weight, you might get muscle cramps or have heart palpitations.

How will my doctor know if I have an eating disorder?

Your doctor will talk to you and your family. You will be asked questions about how you feel about yourself, what you eat, and how much you exercise. Your doctor will give you a physical exam and might order blood tests or other tests. If your doctor thinks you have an eating disorder, you might be referred to a specialist so you can get the treatment you need. Good nutrition and psychologic counseling can help you recover from an eating disorder.

Where can I learn more about eating disorders?

You can talk to your doctor if you think that you or someone you care about has an eating disorder.

You can also contact the following organizations:

  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

  • P.O. Box 7

  • Highland Park, IL 60035

  • Telephone: 1-847-831-3438

  • Fax: 1-847-433-4632

  • Web site:www.anad.org

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