Disordered eating covers a broad range of conditions, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. But there’s a much larger percentage of people (5 to 20%) who struggle with symptoms that do not meet the full criteria of a problematic eating pattern.
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For example, some may purge at times but not often enough to signify bulimia. Like full-blown eating disorders, these below-threshold conditions can lead to significant distress, impacting a person’s overall health and quality of life.
Regardless of type, disordered eating triggers a variety of challenges when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Recognizing the problem is often the hardest yet most important first step. Here, Leslie Heinberg, PhD, Vice Chair for Psychology, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, shares some vital insights on identifying and battling disordered eating.
“One of the most common misconceptions about disordered eating is that it’s a young white woman’s disease,” reveals Dr. Heinberg. “The truth is that disordered eating can affect any gender, race or age. In fact, men account for 25% of disordered eating cases.” Because doctors often overlook this possibility, men may experience delays in treatment and be enrolled in female-centric treatment programs.
Another misconception is that only underweight individuals can be diagnosed with an eating disorder. The truth is that people who have a BMI > 25 (have overweight) or a BMI > 30 (have obesity) can also develop an eating disorder and its associated health and lifestyle consequences. “All patients should be screened for disordered eating, not just those with a low BMI,” notes Dr. Heinberg.
The following are the most common physical signs of disordered eating:
The emotional signs of disordered eating include the following:
If you recognize some warning signs in yourself or a loved one, consider the following recommendations:
Consult your family doctor for an assessment or a referral to an appropriate specialist. There are a variety of specialists, including adolescent medicine, who are specially trained to diagnose and treat disordered eating. “Trying to address it on your own is often difficult and ineffective,” notes Dr. Heinberg.
From the beginning, having family support is associated with better outcomes for patients with disordered eating. Family-based treatments are considered the most effective in treating adolescents and young adults. However, the involvement of a support system is very helpful for patients of any age.
Dr. Heinberg reemphasizes the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the chances for a positive long-term outcome. Here’s a look at statistics that reveal recovery outcomes for three common eating disorders: