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Eating disorders constitute a group of conditions in which there is persistent disturbance of eating or associated behaviors that significantly impair an individual’s physical health or psychosocial functioning. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by restriction of caloric intake to a degree that body weight deviates significantly from age, gender, health, and developmental norms accompanied by a fear of gaining weight and an associated disturbance in body image. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by abnormal compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, or excessive exercise; weight is in the normal range or above. Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia nervosa but lacks the compensatory behavior element.

Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa occur primarily among previously healthy young women who become overly concerned with body shape and weight. Binge eating and purging behavior may be present in both conditions, with the critical distinction between the two resting on the weight of the individual. In women, the lifetime prevalence of anorexia nervosa is up to 4% and of bulimia nervosa approximately 2%. There is at least a 10:1 female-to-male ratio for both conditions. Typically, the onset of anorexia is mid-adolescence and bulimia early adulthood. Both can occur later, but onset is uncommon after age 40.

These disorders are most common in postindustrialized and urbanized countries. Affected pts frequently exhibit perfectionist and obsessional tendencies and often have comorbid anxiety disorders. Pursuit of activities that emphasize thinness (ballet, modeling, distance running) is prevalent, as is a drive for high scholastic achievement. Risk factors are a family history of mood disturbance, childhood obesity, and psychological or physical abuse during childhood.


Anorexia Nervosa

  • General: feeling cold

  • Skin, hair, nails: alopecia, lanugo hair, acrocyanosis, edema

  • Cardiovascular: bradycardia, hypotension

  • Gastrointestinal: salivary gland enlargement, slow gastric emptying, constipation, elevated liver enzymes

  • Hematopoietic: normochromic, normocytic anemia; leukopenia

  • Fluid/electrolyte: increased blood urea nitrogen, increased creatinine, hyponatremia, hypokalemia. Hypokalemia can become life threatening.

  • Endocrine: low luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone with secondary amenorrhea, hypoglycemia, normal thyroid-stimulating hormone with low normal thyroxine, increased plasma cortisol, osteopenia

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Gastrointestinal: salivary gland enlargement, dental erosion from gastric acid exposure

  • Fluid/electrolyte: hypokalemia, hypochloremia, alkalosis (from vomiting), or acidosis (from laxative abuse)

  • Other: callus or scar on dorsum of hand (from repeated scraping against teeth during induced vomiting)


Maudsley family-based therapy is effective in younger individuals, with strict behavioral contingencies used when weight loss becomes critical. No pharmacologic intervention has proven to be specifically beneficial, but comorbid depression and anxiety should be treated. Weight gain should be undertaken gradually with a goal of 0.5–1 lb per week to prevent complications from rapid refeeding (fluid retention, congestive heart failure, acute gastric dilatation). Most individuals are able to achieve remission within 5 years ...

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