What you need to know

Eating Disorder, a publication of the National Institute of Mental Health, recognizes that the condition is marked by extremes. An eating disorder is present when a person experiences severe disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme reduction in food intake, extreme overeating or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape.

Someone with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food than usual, but at some point, the urge to eat less or more spirals out of control. Eating disorders are very complex and, despite scientific research to understand them, the biological, behavioral and social underpinnings of these illnesses remain elusive.

Primary eating disorders

The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, which has received increasing research, media attention and, as of 2013, its own diagnosis. Another category is “eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS),” which includes several variations similar to anorexia or bulimia but with slightly different characteristics.

Who’s likely to have an eating disorder?

Eating disorders frequently appear during adolescence or young adulthood, but some reports indicate they can develop during childhood or later in adulthood. Women and girls are much more likely than males to develop an eating disorder. Men and boys account for an estimated five to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia and an estimated 35 percent of those with binge-eating disorder.

Treatment helps

Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses with complex underlying psychological and biological causes. They frequently co-exist with other psychiatric disorders such as depression, substance abuse or anxiety disorders. People with eating disorders also may display many other physical health complications, including heart conditions or kidney failure, which can lead to death.

Get help now

Deciding to seek help is the first step toward recovery. Reflections Eating Disorders Treatment Center, at Dominion Hospital, matches you with the services and programs that best fit your individual needs.

A Reflections intake coordinator is available 24/7 for a free, confidential and immediate assessment of your situation at (703) 538-2886.

What are the symptoms of eating disorders and when should I seek treatment?

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a relentless pursuit of thinness and an unwillingness to maintain a healthy body weight. Those with the disorder have a distorted body image, often seeing themselves as overweight, even if starved.

Main features of the disease are:

  • Inability to maintain a normal body weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Obsession with food
  • Distorted view of one’s own body

These attitudes and behaviors can be seen with or without purging behaviors (self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse or over-exercising). With both physical and psychological consequences, anorexia nervosa is best treated by a multispecialty medical team.

People with anorexia often have low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and use an obsessive control of their own diet and weight as a method of controlling their surroundings and their emotions.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa:

  • Body weight less than 85 percent of ideal or BMI of less than 17.5
  • Absent or irregular menstrual periods
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Distorted body image
  • Unusual eating behaviors, such as slow pace or substitutive behaviors to replace eating (gum chewing)
  • Compulsive or excessive exercise
  • Lanugo—a fine growth of hair on the face/chest
  • Brittle hair or nails or hair loss
  • Yellow skin color
  • Bradycardia—slow heart rate (less than 60 beats per minute)
  • Dizziness or fainting after standing
  • Depression and/or social isolation

Admission for anorexia nervosa

Depending on your signs and symptoms, you may be admitted to our inpatient program (in the hospital 24 hours/day) or to our partial program (in the hospital 12 hours/day with nights at home).

Inpatient program:

  • Active refusal to eat
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Need for supervised meals and nutritional planning
  • Significant impact on daily living
  • Excessive, uncontrolled exercise
  • Related medical complications requiring increased monitoring

Partial program:

  • Preoccupation with food and weight
  • Need for a structured treatment plan to help make progress
  • Excessive, uncontrolled exercise
  • Related medical complications requiring increased monitoring
  • Need for supervised meals but not acute medical care

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control around eating, followed by behaviors that compensate for the binge, such as purging, fasting or excessive exercise.

Like anorexia, those with bulimia may have a distorted body image or fear of weight gain. With both physical and psychological consequences, bulimia nervosa is best treated by a multispecialty medical team.

People with bulimia often have low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and use binging and purging behaviors as a way to cope with these issues.

Signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating
  • Self-induced vomiting, laxative, diuretic or diet pill use
  • Skipping some meals and overeating at others
  • Secretive behavior around food and eating
  • Compulsive or excessive exercise
  • Obsession with food and activities and information related to food (grocery shopping, baking, cookbooks, food magazines)
  • Mouth, teeth, gum and throat problems (cavities, ulcers, disease)
  • GERD (acid reflux)
  • Constipation/diarrhea
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Decreased ability to focus or concentrate
  • Depression or mood swings

Admission for bulimia nervosa

Depending on your signs and symptoms, you may be admitted to our inpatient program (in the hospital 24 hours/day) or to our partial program (in the hospital 12 hours/day with nights at home).

Inpatient program:

  • Active daily purging
  • Need for meal and bathroom monitoring
  • Excessive, uncontrollable exercise
  • Significant impact on daily living
  • Multiple medical and behavioral concerns/issues

Partial program:

  • Active purging
  • Distorted body image
  • Medical and behavioral concerns

Learn more

Learn more about our program to address self-injurious behavior and additional mental health services available at Dominion Hospital.