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Looking trim and fit is a top priority among many Americans today. We have perhaps never been so health-obsessed, constantly trying new exercise regimes and fad diets. While regular exercise and healthy eating habits are great ways to stay fit, some people may take dieting and exercising to the extreme. This may lead to the development of an eating disorder, which can be very dangerous.

There are several types of eating disorders including compulsive overeating, body dysmorphia, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. The two most common disorders are anorexia and bulimia and may begin developing early in childhood.

An estimated 5- to 10-million females and 1-million males are battling an eating disorder in the U.S. Young white females seem to be the most common group of individuals affected due to more social pressures to have a thin figure in the white community than in other ethnic communities. Eighty-seven percent of the estimated with eating disorders are younger than 20.

Many factors play into the formation of an eating disorder, including an individual's family history or situation, genetics, and cultural standards. However, people with a history of depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors are often at higher risk for developing an eating disorder.

The most common factor in developing an eating disorder is a lowered self-esteem, often due to a lack of self-esteem building at home by parents, or through physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Anorexia is an eating disorder in which people starve themselves. Some perceive anorexia as a simple case of vanity taken too far, but rather it is a complex psychological problem. Many times, anorexia begins around the onset of puberty.

Individuals with this disorder suffer extreme weight loss, usually fifteen percent below the person's normal body weight. These individuals are very skinny but are convinced that they are overweight. The weight loss may be obtained through excessive exercise, intake of laxatives, and not eating. People with anorexia have an intense fear of becoming fat and often refuse to eat in front of others. The most common group afflicted with anorexia is adolescent girls and those involved in activities like dancing, long distance running, gymnastics, modeling, and wrestling.

Young white females are most susceptible to eating disorders - anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating and body dysmorphia. Read more about anorexia and bulimia in young girls and boys.Signs of anorexia include body weight that is inconsistent with age, refusal to eat in public, anxiety, brittle skin and hair, obsessiveness about calorie intake, and irregular menstrual cycles. Luckily, anorexia can be overcome. Professional counseling, encouragement and understanding from home, and paying close attention to medical and nutritional needs can all assist in an individual's recovery.

Bulimia is a psychological eating disorder characterized by episodes of binge-eating followed by inappropriate methods of weight control including vomiting, fasting, enemas, laxatives, and compulsive exercising. Bulimia often begins with dissatisfaction of one's body or extreme concern over their size and weight. Binge eating is not a response to intense hunger rather a response to stress, depression, or self-esteem issues.

During the binge episode, the individual experiences a loss of control which is followed by a sense of calmness. This calmness is often followed by a period of self-loathing. The cycle of binging and purging are often repeated twice a day to several times a day and become an obsession.

People with bulimia look perfectly normal. They are usually of normal weight, but can be overweight. It is often difficult to determine whether a person is bulimic because binging and purging are done in secret and most individuals will deny their condition.

Symptoms include eating uncontrollably then strict dieting or excessive exercise, weakness, mood swings or depression, irregular periods, preoccupation with body weight, and using the bathroom frequently after meals. The group most common affected as well as the treatment is similar to those individuals with anorexia.

Prevention of eating disorders begins at home. Parents are the primary teachers in their children's lives so kids learn beliefs and behaviors about food, nutrition, and self-image starting at an early age. The child who is raised with healthy eating behaviors is bound to develop into an adolescent and young adult with positive attitudes towards food and the self. This is the best prevention of eating disorders.

There is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. Some people just don't eat right, but if eating controls your life, then you may have an eating disorder. If you think you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please contact a health professional.

next: Eating Disorders Prevention: Help for Parents
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