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What are eating disorders?

Kelly studies the causes of eating disorders - including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. These disorders are characterized by abnormal eating patterns (i.e., starvation, binge eating, self-induced vomiting) and thoughts (e.g., thinking that one is fat even though extremely thin). 

People with these disorders, the majority of whom are women, are often extremely concerned about how they look and, in particular, how they think their body looks. They worry about becoming fat and/or gaining weight. They become obsessed with their bodies, always wishing they were thinner. At times, their entire self-esteem is based on how they think their body looks.

The currently identified eating disorders are each described below. Although there are differences among the different diagnoses, there are many similarities as well (e.g., binge eating is common in nearly all eating disorders). 

It is important to note that the vast majority of clinical eating disorders do not fit into the diagnostic categories described below. In fact, approximately 70% of sufferers do not meet criteria for a specific eating disorder. This means that many women are suffering from serious symptoms of eating disorders that are clinically significant and could be treated with the help of a specialist. 

Any signs or symptoms of an eating disorder (regardless of which one, or whether all criteria are met) warrants an evaluation by an eating disorder specialist who can provide direction on the need for treatment and the types of treatment that would be most effective.


Anorexia Nervosa

Individuals with anorexia nervosa significantly limit their food intake in order to achieve a thinner body. They become so thin that they put their lives in danger. In addition, they often exercise excessively and sometimes also vomit to rid themselves of food that they have eaten. Binge eating is a common symptom as well, often followed by extreme weight loss behaviors (e.g., fasting for days) to counteract the food ingested during a binge.

Bulimia Nervosa

Individuals with bulimia nervosa are typically of normal body weight, despite the fact that they tend to diet excessively. But in addition to the dieting, they engage in binge eating episodes in which they eat an abnormally large amount of food (often greater than 2,500 calories) in a short period of time (i.e., less than 2 hours).  During the binge episodes, women with bulimia nervosa report a loss of control over their eating, such that they can’t stop what or how much they are eating.  This last feature of binge eating is what makes binge eating different from overeating, as overeating is not typically accompanied by a loss of control over food intake.

Individuals with bulimia nervosa are extremely fearful of gaining weight from the binge episodes. As a result, they self-induce vomiting, misuse laxatives or water pills, and/or use enemas to try to rid themselves of food they ate while binge eating.

Binge Eating Disorder

Individuals with binge eating disorder engage in the same type of binge episodes as those with bulimia nervosa. The only difference is that individuals with binge eating disorder do not try to rid themselves of food ingested during the binge, i.e., they do not engage in regular self-induced vomiting, laxative misuse, etc.  However, individuals with this disorder are incredibly distressed by their binge episodes and have had many unsuccessful attempts at stopping them altogether.  Some individuals with binge eating disorder are overweight, although many individuals are of normal body weight as well.