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How to Tell If You or a Friend May Have an Eating Disorder

Teenage girls and college-age women — and increasingly teenage boys and young men — are especially prone to developing eating disorders, mental illnesses characterized by a dangerous obsession with losing weight or staying thin. Teens with eating disorders may starve themselves (anorexia nervosa), or they may binge on food and then throw up or take laxatives to purge themselves of the excess (bulimia). How can you tell if a diet has progressed to something dangerous?

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexics starve themselves because of an irrational fear of becoming fat. Teens with anorexia nervosa starve themselves, are obsessed with food and may indulge in compulsive exercising.

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These behaviors and emotional symptoms suggest anorexia nervosa:

  • Loss of a significant amount of weight.
  • Continuing to diet and "feeling fat" even after reaching a goal weight, or becoming visibly thin.
  • Irrational fear of gaining weight.
  • Obsession with food, calories, fat content and nutrition.
  • Weighing oneself once a day or more.
  • Refusal to discuss a diet with others.
  • Cooking for others but not eating.
  • Compulsive exercising.
  • Lying about eating.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Eating large amounts of food and getting rid of it by throwing up, fasting, taking laxatives or exercising excessively. This is called bingeing and purging.

Physical symptoms of anorexia:

  • Hair loss.
  • Loss of monthly menstrual period.
  • Cold hands and feet.
  • Weakness and exhaustion.
  • Constipation.
  • Growth of body hair on arms, legs and other body parts.
  • Heart tremors.
  • Dry, brittle skin.
  • Shortness of breath.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by frequent consumption of large amounts of food in a short period of time — binge eating. A bulimic may eat as many as 20,000 calories in a binge. Such binges are generally followed by feelings of guilt and depression, and by purging via vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics or fasting. You can't spot a bulimic by weight — it's usually normal or a somewhat above normal, but may fluctuate by 10 pounds or more due to binging and purging behavior.

Behaviors and emotional symptoms of bulimia:

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  • Binge eating, or eating uncontrollably and/or secretively.
  • Purging by dieting, fasting, exercise, vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics.
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals.
  • Obsession with weight.
  • Depression.
  • Mood swings.
  • Feelings of being out of control.

Other symptoms:

  • Swollen glands in the neck and face.
  • Heartburn.
  • Bloating.
  • Irregular periods.
  • Dental problems.
  • Constipation.
  • Indigestion.
  • Sore throat.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Weakness and exhaustion.
  • Bloodshot eyes.

Binge Eating

Like those with bulimia, those with binge eating disorders indulge in compulsive overeating. However, they do not purge their binges and often are overweight. Some overeat throughout the day rather than binging.

Behaviors and symptoms of binge eating:

  • Binge eating episodes.
  • Eating when not hungry.
  • Frequent dieting.
  • Uncontrollable eating.
  • Awareness that eating patterns aren't normal.
  • Feelings of shame, depression or antisocial behavior.
  • Obesity.
  • Weight fluctuations.

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