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Eating Disorders

People with eating disorders experience serious disturbances in their eating patterns, such as severe and unhealthy reduction in their food intake or overeating, as well as extreme concern about body shape or weight. Eating disorders usually develop during adolescence or early adulthood. While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are most often about much more than food. They arise from a variety of physical, emotional, social issues, all of which need to be addressed for effective prevention and treatment. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.  

Disordered eating encompasses any abnormal eating pattern, ranging from less extreme to extreme behaviors. This includes a collection of interrelated eating habits; weight management practices; attitudes about food, weight and body shape; and physiological imbalances. Disordered eating includes classic eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder) as well as eating patterns of lesser severity.

Source: California Department of Public Health


  • Conservative estimates suggest that bulimia and anorexia affect 5-10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men.
  • Binge eating disorder affects approximately 24 million women and men.
  • 15% of young women suffer from disordered eating.
  • Eighty-six percent of people with eating disorders report the onset of the illness by the time they reach the age of 20 (
  • An estimated 85-95% of people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia and 65% of people with binge eating disorders are female.
  • Young women that have anorexia are 12 times more likely to die than other women their age.

Source: MEDA (Multiservice Eating Disorder Association), 2002.



What is body image, and why is it so important?

Body image does not necessarily refer to what a person actually looks like. Rather, it refers to the way that a person feels about her/his body and their physical appearance. Some of the factors that can negatively affect body image can range from unrealistic expectations about appearances coming from parents, peers, or friends to simply being repeatedly exposed to images of "perfect" bodies through the media. Often times, individuals with an eating disorder have a distorted body image, and can not see themselves as other people see them. A distorted body image is a sign of an eating disorder.


Why are eating disorders so prevalent at colleges and universities?

Being in college can be both an exciting and a stressful event for many men and women. For those who are starting off at college It is a time of changes – adjusting to new independence, building new relationships, facing academic rigor, adjusting to new living situations, meeting new people - to name a few. Regardless of where one is in the college experience, for approximately 20% of college-aged women, the stress manifests itself into an issue of control – one in which the student feels that so many changes has made life feel out of control. The result is that a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that by controlling what they eat, how much they exercise, and looking “thin”, they can not only look more attractive but also cope with and be successful in the new environment.


What are the long-term effects of eating disorders?

Left untreated, eating disorders may lead to malnutrition, muscle atrophy, dry skin, hair, and nails, dental problems, insomnia or chronic fatigue, ulcers, low blood pressure, diabetes, anemia, kidney, liver and pancreas failure, osteoporosis, and arthritis, infertility, seizures, heart attack, and death. The morality rate among people with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate among females ages 15-24 from all other cause.


Who is affected by eating disorders? Do eating disorders only affect adolescent and college-aged females?

While it’s true that eating disorders are more commonly diagnosed in females than males and more often during adolescence and early adulthood than older ages, many cases are also being recognized in males and in women in their 30-40s. Eating disorders affect people in all socioeconomic classes, although it was once believed that they disproportionately affected upper socioeconomic groups.


Are eating disorders treatable?

Yes. The sooner they are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be. Many people with eating disorders who are treated early and
appropriately can achieve a full and long-term recovery. Eating disorders require comprehensive, long-term treatment plans that usually involves individual or family therapy, and that may include medication and even immediate hospitalization. Support from family and friends is vital to successful treatment and recovery.


My friend exercises intensely every day. Is this considered to be a sign of an eating disorder?

Over-exercising occurs when exercise is sought more for the means to a thinner body or sense of control and accomplishment than for the pursuit of fitness or pleasure. Female exercisers are particularly vulnerable to problems arising when restriction of food intake is combined with intense physical activity. If the person is not training for a rigorous athletic event, and the compulsion is driven by a desire to lose weight, the compulsion may be a dimension of an eating disorder, even if your friend is iin a normal weight range. If you know the person well, talk to him/her about the reasons he or she exercises this much.


I'm worried about a friend's eating habits. What can I do?

If you have a friend with an eating disorder, or you worry about what might be an eating disorder, you are not alone. Click here for more information on how you can help a friend.

  • Make sure your friend knows that you care about them. You may want to go further and share with her/him what you have observed and talk about your specific concerns.
  • Your friend may deny or minimize or may say "I used to have a problem but I'm better now," or she may acknowledge the difficulty and want to talk about it. If she denies it and wants to avoid it, you may have to be satisfied to have expressed your concerns directly for the time being.
  • If you are concerned that your friend may be in some medical jeopardy and feel you must do more than just express your concerns to them, you may need to ask for additional help.

Source: compiled from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), New York University's Wellness Exchange, and the Women's Center of Boston College