An eating disorder is characterised by obsessive thoughts about food and body weight. This includes people who limit the amount of food they eat (Anorexia nervosa), eat lots of food in a very small time and then purge (Bulimia) or overeat often (Compulsive overeating).
Obsessive thoughts about food and body weight can change eating patterns (dieting, making excuses not to eat, avoidance of social situations involving food, going to the bathroom straight after meals), mood (feeling depressed, irritable or anxious), daily activities (not wanting to go out socially often, exercising excessively, spending a lot of time talking about appearance or weight or looking in the mirror) and appearance (wearing baggy clothes, losing or gaining weight, greasy or dry hair and skin).
There is no single cause for eating disorders. It is thought that a number of factors are involved to varying degrees in different people, including: genetic inheritance, personal and psychological factors related to adolescence or family issues for example, and social factors such as media representation of body image.
While anyone can develop an eating disorder, more females than males tend to be affected, in particular young women. It is difficult for researchers to give a definitive answer on prevalence, but an Australian study has shown that 8.8% of female adolescents had an eating disorder, with almost half of these also having high levels of depression or anxiety.
Eating disorders can be treated successfully. Because they effect the person physically and psychologically, it is usually most helpful to treat them with a team of professionals including psychiatrists, dieticians, psychologists, nurses and others. When someone is very seriously affected, it may be necessary for them to be treated in hospital for a time. Information and mutual support are also important for the person affected and for family and friends.
It is important to ask your doctor about any concerns you have. SANE Australia also produces a range of easy-to-read publications and multimedia resources on mental illness.
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