I think I might have an eating disorder. What should I do? How are eating disorders treated?

If you think you may have an eating disorder, it is very important that you speak with someone on the CHOC team as soon as possible. We’re here to help you, not judge you. Your doctor will evaluate you to diagnose whether or not you have an eating disorder and determine the right way to treat the problem.

Eating disorders are usually treated with a combination of individual therapy, family therapy, behavior modification and nutritional rehabilitation. In short, we will work with you to help you understand the feelings that have brought on the eating disorder and help you relearn the right way to feed your body. Medication (usually antidepressants) may be helpful if you are also depressed. Your family will play a supportive role in your treatment process and hospitalization may be required for medical complications related to weight loss and malnutrition.

How do I know if I have anorexia?

The following are the most common symptoms of anorexia. However, your symptoms could be different.

Symptoms may include:

  • Low body weight (less than 85 percent of normal weight for height and age)
  • Intense fear of becoming obese, even as individual is losing weight
  • Distorted view of your body weight, size, or shape. You may see yourself as being fat even when you are not fat and may even be underweight
  • Refuses to maintain minimum normal body weight
  • In females, absence of three menstrual cycles without another cause
  • Excessive physical activity in order to promote weight loss
  • Denies feelings of hunger
  • Preoccupation with food preparation
  • Bizarre eating behaviors

The following are the most common physical symptoms associated with anorexia–often that result from starvation and malnourishment. Symptoms may include:

  • Dry skin that when pinched and released, stays pinched
  • Dehydration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Lethargy
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Intolerance to cold temperatures
  • Emaciation (very little body fat)
  • Development of lanugo (fine, downy body hair)
  • Yellowing of the skin

Some of these symptoms may also come as a result of cancer treatment. You should speak with your oncologist if you have any of the symptoms above.

People with anorexia may also be socially withdrawn, irritable, moody, and/or depressed. The symptoms of anorexia nervosa may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions.

How do I know if I have bulimia nervosa?

There are two subgroups of anorexic behavior aimed at reducing caloric intake, including the following:

  • Purging type – regularly makes themselves throw up or misuses laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other cathartics (medications, through their chemical effects, that serve to increase the clearing of intestinal contents).
  • Non-purging type – uses other inappropriate behaviors, such as fasting or excessive exercise, rather than regularly engaging in purging behaviors to reduce caloric absorption of excessive amounts of food by the body.

The following are the most common symptoms of bulimia.

  • Usually a normal or low body weight (sees self as overweight)
  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating (rapidly eating excessive amounts of food in a relatively short period of time; often in secret), coupled with fearful feelings of not being able to stop eating during the bingeing episodes
  • Self-induced vomiting (usually secretive)
  • Excessive exercise or fasting
  • Peculiar eating habits or rituals
  • Inappropriate use of laxatives, diuretics, or other cathartics
  • Irregular or absence of menstruation
  • Anxiety
  • Discouraged feelings related to dissatisfaction with themselves and their bodily appearance
  • Depression
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body shape
  • Scarring on the back of the fingers from the process of self-induced vomiting
  • Overachieving behaviors

Are there different types of eating disorders?

There are many different eating disorders, like binge eating, body image disorders, and food phobias, The two major types of eating disorders—anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

People with anorexia nervosa severely restrict calories to the point of starvation. They are obsessed with being thin and have an unhealthy and distorted body image. They may refuse to eat at all or only eat tiny amounts of food that has few calories. Anorexics are extremely thin, yet constantly think of themselves as overweight.

People with bulimia nervosa eat a lot of (binge on) huge quantities of food, then force themselves to vomit. They may also exercise compulsively and take laxatives to help rid their body of the calories they’ve eaten. Bulimics continue this cycle of binging and purging and may also diet excessively in between binges. Bulimics aren’t necessarily extremely thin and may often seem to be of normal weight.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is an unhealthy obsession with food and weight. People with eating disorders eat – or avoid eating – in extreme ways. At least 8 million people in the U.S. are living with an eating disorder. The overwhelming majority – about 90 percent – are female.

Eating Disorders

A cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling helpless and out of control and without even thinking, you may look for ways to reclaim control of your life. Some cancer patients may turn to food as a source of control, especially if they have suffered from eating disorders in the past.

Eating disorders are tricky because it can be tough to recognize that you aren’t eating right. It can often be easier to chalk up your way of eating or weight loss to “dieting” or just not feeling hungry.

The specific diet and nutrition guidelines from the Cancer Institute team are important to keep your body and immune system as healthy as possible before, during and after treatment.