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Eating Disorders

Girl pushing away a plate of food.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses. When a girl has an eating disorder, she tries to control the amount or kinds of foods she eats. She may become so focused on eating (or not eating) that she hurts her body. There are three kinds of eating disorders.

1. Anorexia nervosa. A girl with anorexia nervosa (say: an-uh-RECK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh), often called anorexia, is afraid to gain weight. Someone with anorexia thinks about food a lot and limits the food she eats, even though she is too thin. Anorexia is more than just a problem with food. It's a way of using food or starving oneself to feel more in control of life and to ease tension, anger, and anxiety. Most people with anorexia are female.

An anorexic:

  • Has a low body weight for her height
  • Resists keeping a normal body weight
  • Has an intense fear of gaining weight
  • Thinks she is fat even when very thin
  • Misses 3 menstrual periods in a row (for girls/women who have started having their periods)

2. Bulimia nervosa. A girl with bulimia nervosa (say: buh-LEE-me-ah nur-VOH-suh), usually called bulimia, eats a lot of food in a short amount of time (binge eating). She then tries to stop weight gain by getting rid of the food (purging). Purging is:

  • Making yourself throw up
  • Taking laxatives (pills or liquids that speed up the movement of food through your body and lead to a bowel movement)

A girl looking sick from eating too much.

A person with bulimia feels she cannot control how much food she eats. Also, bulimics might exercise a lot, eat very little or not at all, or take pills to pass urine often to prevent weight gain.

Unlike anorexia, girls with bulimia can fall within the normal range for their age and weight. But like people with anorexia, bulimics:

  • Fear gaining weight
  • Want desperately to lose weight
  • Are very unhappy with their body size and shape

3. Binge eating disorder. Girls with binge eating disorder eat an unusually large amount of food and feel out of control during the binges. For example, they may eat an entire bag of cookies, or a whole pizza. Unlike bulimia or anorexia, binge eaters do not throw up their food, exercise a lot, or eat only small amounts of only certain foods. Because of this, binge eaters are often overweight or obese. People with binge eating disorder also may:

  • Eat more quickly than usual during binge episodes
  • Eat until they are uncomfortably full
  • Eat when they are not hungry
  • Eat alone because of embarrassment
  • Feel disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating

Do you or does someone you know have an eating disorder?

One of the most important things to remember is that eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses. If you have an eating disorder, you can get better with a doctor’s or counselor’s help. Talk to a trusted adult about how to get help.

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Learn more about:

Exercise can be great for your body, but too much exercise can actually be harmful. If your friend is exercising all the time to keep her weight in check, she may harm herself. Read more about compulsive exercise External link.

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Content last reviewed May 18, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

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