8 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Eating Disorders

  • girl with bulimia about to vomit in school bathroom
    What Having an Eating Disorder Really Means
    If you or someone you love has an eating disorder, it's important to make sure you understand the dangers and the importance of treatment. Whether it's bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, or something else, these are serious illnesses. Here are the most important things about eating disorders that experts want you to know.

  • Man showing his fat on the stomach
    1. "There is a myth that 'men don’t have eating disorders.'"
    This isn't just a female issue. It's true eating disorders are much more common in women. But, men have them, too. "Many men also struggle with their body shape," says Sarah Altman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "However, it often focuses on their muscularity rather than their weight, like women," Men often report "experiencing shame," she says. But, "their struggle is just as real as women who struggle with eating disorders."


  • Teenage Girl Visits Doctor's Office Suffering With Depression
    2. "No one 'chooses' to have an eating disorder.”
    Eating disorders aren't about vanity or being stubborn about eating. They are real illnesses. Eating disorders "can be very disruptive to the person who is struggling and can impact their relationships with others in many ways," Altman says. Many people with eating disorders want to change, but need help taking the first steps to recovery. "Changing these behaviors is something that is very difficult, requires support from friends and family, and is not as simple as 'just eat.'"


  • Summer Crowd
    3. "Not every overweight person has an eating disorder."
    You can't always tell if people have an eating disorder by the way they look. Not everyone with anorexia or bulimia is extremely thin. And many, but not all, people with binge eating disorder are overweight. "Obesity is a medical disease—it's not an eating disorder," says Ovidio Bermudez, MD, chief clinical officer and medical director of child and adolescent services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, and a spokesman for the National Eating Disorders Association. There are clinical criteria you must meet to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.


  • Close up of smiling mother and daughter hugging
    4. "I feel well, therefore I must be well."
    People with bulimia, anorexia or binge eating disorder might feel OK, but they might not be OK. "That's one of the ways to recognize the difference between medical illness and an eating disorder," Bermudez says. "I think if loved ones wait for someone with an eating disorder, especially anorexia, to say, 'I'm not well—take me to the doctor' … people with an eating disorder will wait a long time."


  • Doctor holding patient hand to give a support
    5. "Early intervention helps."
    Eating disorders can be treated more successfully if you begin treatment early, says Joanna Steinglass, MD, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Eating disorders often start during the teen years, but many people don’t seek treatment until their early 20s, Dr. Steinglass says. "This means that many people wait a long time before seeking help." Don't put off treatment. And don't think you can solve this problem on your own. Everyone needs help at some point in their life.


  • Doctor Writing Medical Prescription
    6. "Treatments are available that can help."
    You don't need to struggle on your own to get better. Medications and different types of therapy can help you win the battle against your eating disorder. "For many people, psychotherapy that focuses on the thoughts and feelings driving behavior (cognitive behavioral therapy) is highly effective treatment," Steinglass says. Genetics, stressful situations, and various lifestyle and family factors can trigger eating disorders. Just like diabetes or heart disease, an eating disorder is a disease that needs treatment.


  • Emergency Room
    7. "Complications can be serious."
    Eating disorders are dangerous and deadly. “Anorexia can cause life-threatening consequences,” says Allegra Broft, MD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Anorexia has one of the highest rates of death of any mental illness, she adds. Bulimia and binge eating disorders also cause serious health effects. These include heart problems and organ damage. Eating disorders can also trigger or worsen depression.


  • support group
    8. "There is no one characteristic pattern of recovery."
    No one recovers from eating disorders the same way. “Some people need treatment their whole life,” Dr. Broft says. Regular visits with a counselor or therapist are important. Joining a support group can help you stay on track and seek help when you need it. Many people with an eating disorder have to be vigilant about it for the rest of their lives, Broft adds. Others fully recover and move forward with a healthy life and a healthy relationship with food, their minds, and bodies.


8 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Eating Disorders
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  1. Health Consequences of Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences-eating-disorders 
  2. Treating an Eating Disorder. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/treating-eating-disorder 
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 3
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.