What is an eating disorder?

As February comes to an end, UofL Health recognizes National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and the need to spread messages of awareness, support and hope to people with eating disorders and their loved ones.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a diverse set of serious yet treatable mental and physical illnesses that affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, sexual orientations and body shapes. The causes of eating disorders likely include a combination of ranging biological, psychological and sociocultural factors. Examples of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Orthorexia
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder
  • Pica
  • Rumination disorder
  • Unspecified feeding or eating disorder
  • Laxative abuse
  • Compulsive exercise

Populations affected

Due to a common misconception that eating disorders primarily affect young women, many assume that adults and men do not make up a significant portion of the population with these illnesses. However, researchers are finding larger numbers of middle-aged women reporting symptoms of eating disorders, and those with potential disorders are not being diagnosed. Symptoms of eating disorders look quite different in older men and women, often causing more severe medical complications leaving virtually every bodily system more vulnerable to damage.

Men are not spared from developing eating disorders with between 0.9% and 2.0% of females and 0.1% to 0.3% of males developing anorexia. Additionally, 15% of gay and bisexual men and 4.6% of heterosexual men had a full or subthreshold eating disorder at some point in their lives.

The National Eating Disorders Association also states that, in the United States, people of color are less likely to receive help for an eating disorder despite similar rates of illness among non-Hispanic White, Hispanic, African-American and Asian populations.

These statistics illustrate the need to recognize how eating disorders can arise in any individual and community. Supporting awareness across all populations is important in recognizing eating disorders quickly to provide the best chance of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

Warning signs and treatment

Early detection of an eating disorder increases the chances for recovery. Someone struggling with an eating disorder will likely have varying symptoms that may include:

  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams and dieting
  • Appears uncomfortable eating around others
  • Food rituals
  • Skipping meals or taking small portions of food
  • Avoidance of friends and activities
  • Extreme concern with body size and shape
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Poor wound healing
  • Impaired immune functioning

Receiving a diagnosis from a health care professional is the first step toward treatment and recovery. Treating an eating disorder typically requires a multifaceted medical approach commonly involving a provider, therapist, dietitian and insurance case manager. Meeting with a primary care provider is a great first step to explore treatment options and receive personalized care through provider referrals. To find a primary care provider, visit UofL Physicians – Primary Care today.

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About Nicole McGloshen, MS, RDN, LD

Nicole McGloshen MS, RDN, LD is the registered dietitian for UofL Health – Mary & Elizabeth Hospital – Weight Loss Center, and UofL Health – Diabetes and Nutrition Program. A graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor's in dietetics, Nicole completed her dietetic internship through Ball State University. She earned a master's in communications from Purdue University. Nicole uses her experience and academic training to provide evidence-based recommendations and supportive tips that will help you to succeed with lap-band surgery. Just as importantly, Nicole creates a safe space where patients can be open and honest about their relationship with food; the good, the bad and the ugly. Nicole says, “While change is hard, I firmly believe that we can do hard things! I’m here to support you on this journey; celebrate the wins and brainstorm solutions when needed."

All posts by Nicole McGloshen, MS, RDN, LD