Q: A loved one may have an eating disorder. What should I do?

A: Eating disorders pose serious health risks and require prompt medical attention.

The problem is not really about food; disordered eating develops as a way to cope with emotional pain. Most people with a disorder also suffer from depression or anxiety. There are three major eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa involves the extreme restriction of calories, and involves dramatic weight loss or intentional maintenance of an unhealthy low weight. Those suffering from bulimia nervosa are often at normal weight, while binge eating disorder is associated with being overweight. Bulimia and binge eating disorder involve frequent episodes of extreme overeating, whereas only bulimia also features unhealthy behavior (such as self-induced vomiting) intended to "compensate" for the binges.

Anorexia and bulimia affect far more women than men (9:1), and tend to emerge between puberty and early adulthood. Binge eating disorder affects almost as many men as women, and usually first appears in early to mid-adulthood.

Warning signs include:

Significant weight loss or weight fluctuations.

Preoccupation with food, calories, exercise, shape, and weight.

Avoiding social activities that involve eating, or showing up having "just eaten."

Wearing baggy or shapeless clothing.

Seeming depressed, fatigued, or preoccupied.

Hoarding or hiding food.

Disappearing (to the bathroom) after meals.

If your loved one displays these signs, patiently describe what you've observed and share your concern in a kind and caring way. We don't know exactly what causes eating disorders. It's important to help your loved one find a treatment provider, preferably one experienced in eating disorders, and sooner rather than later. For anorexia, early diagnosis and treatment is one of the best predictors of positive treatment outcome, in addition to the support of loved ones.

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Stacey Cahn, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.