Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2008;77(2):196-197

See related article on eating disorders.

How do I know if I have anorexia?

If you have anorexia (an-oh-RECKS-see-uh), you are very thin, but do not think of yourself as being thin. You may feel scared of gaining weight and choose not to eat very much, or at all. You may not think you have an eating problem, though. You also may try to lose weight by throwing up after you eat, using laxatives (one brand: Ex-Lax) or diet pills (both make you go to the bathroom a lot), or exercising a lot.

How do I know if I have bulimia?

If you have bulimia (boo-LEEM-ee-uh), you may eat a lot of food at one time. This is called bingeing (BIN-jing). You may feel like you don't have control of your eating. You may try to lose weight by throwing up after you eat, using laxatives or diet pills, exercising a lot, or not eating for a long time. You may do these things in private and not tell anyone. You may feel bad about yourself because you don't like your body.

Who is at risk for getting an eating disorder?

Teenage girls and young women are the most likely to have an eating disorder, but anyone of any age can have one. People who get eating disorders tend to join in activities that stress being thin. Examples of these activities include ballet, gymnastics, running, figure skating, and cheerleading. People with eating disorders may have depression (feeling sad and hopeless, and losing interest in things you used to enjoy) or anxiety (feeling nervous or worrying too much). They may also feel that they need to be perfect.

What are the health risks of eating disorders?

Eating disorders can cause serious health problems, even death. If you have an eating disorder, your body may not get enough important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. This can lead to problems with your heart, bones, skin, digestive system, and hormones. Making yourself throw up may cause your teeth to break down.

How are eating disorders treated?

The goal of treatment is to make your health and eating habits better. You may need to work with your doctor, a dietitian, and a counselor to be able to do this. They can help you:

  • Manage any physical problems caused by the eating disorder

  • Develop good eating habits and stay at a healthy weight

  • Change how you think about food and about yourself

  • Improve how you handle feelings such as anger, anxiety, and feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Develop ways to keep the eating disorder from coming back

Your family may be included in your treatment plan. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help you with depression or anxiety. Medicines alone are not enough to help you get better.

If you have bulimia, working with a counselor and using self-help books may help you get better. However, this is not the best treatment if you have anorexia. You may need to be treated in a hospital if you are dangerously thin or have major medical problems. Talk to your family doctor about which treatment plan is best for you.

Are there ways to help myself get better?

  • Make and keep regular appointments with your doctor

  • Eat regular meals

  • Exercise regularly, but do not overexercise

  • Don't use laxatives or diet pills

  • Don't follow fad diets or diets with very few food choices or too few calories

  • Don't use caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes

Where can I learn more about eating disorders?

National Eating Disorders Association

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc.

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

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American Academy of Family Physicians

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