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UCLA Eating Disorders Program

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About Eating Disorders

The Nature of Eating Disorders

Physical growth and psychological development bring to children, adolescents and adults not only exciting opportunities for change, but challenges that may overwhelm.  Eating disorders arise from the failure to effectively negotiate these demands.  Their root causes are diverse, involving unique personal stresses, along with susceptibilities, both emotional and biological, that raise levels of anxiety, self-doubt, and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Among the major forms of eating disorder are:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an illness of obsessive self-starvation characterized by: refusal to maintain a minimally normal weight; intense fear of weight gain or being "fat," even when underweight; and distorted perception of the body or denial of the seriousness of the effects of extreme weight loss.  Learn more about anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an illness of repetitive binge eating, in which a person feels a loss of control of normal eating, consumes extreme amounts of food, and then attempts to counteract the effects of doing so by inducing vomiting; taking large amounts of diet pills, laxatives or diuretics; exercising in an extreme manner; or fasting for extended periods.  Learn more about bulimia nervosa.

Some Important Facts About Eating Disorders


Challenges to Recovery

It is well established that anorexia nervosa can be a potentially chronic illness.  The pace of recovery can be slow, something that patients and families come to better appreciate over time as the extreme fear of resuming normal eating and gaining weight becomes more and more evident.  If treatment is delayed, not only do the symptoms intensify, but underlying psychological troubles that drive the illness become even more entrenched and difficult to overcome.  This is why treatment should begin as early as possible.

Bulimia nervosa, too, can become more challenging to address over time as the repeated cycles of binge eating and purging become increasingly automatic and habit forming. 

The Role of Treatment

Treatment studies in anorexia nervosa are relatively few, but there is evidence that treatment delivered in a specialty service is associated with reduced long-term risk of mortality.  With younger persons, combining psychological interventions with treatment involving the family is crucial.  At times, the addition of certain medications that alleviate obsessive thought and general anxiety can play a helpful role, but only when used with other psychologically based therapies.  

Influence of Media and Fashion

Although any number of outside influences can affect the development of eating disorders, they are not sole causative factors; eating disorders are complex illnesses in which emotional sensitivities and other susceptibilities play a decisive role.  While the media can impact self-esteem and self-image, media influences are not a direct cause of eating disorders.   

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