The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness estimates that eating disorders affect approximately 25 million Americans, but do you how much do you actually know about the condition? Here are the facts:

What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are complex, individualized and can manifest with different combinations of symptoms. According to the American Psychological Association, there are three major types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), recognizes the first two, and provides the eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) category for those who have some but not all of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia. Binge eating disorder is listed in the appendix as a diagnosis for further study.

Anorexia nervosa
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), anorexia nervosa involves excessive weight loss and self-starvation. Symptoms include an intense fear of being “fat” or gaining weight (even if the person is clinically underweight ), low self-image due to weight or body perceptions, loss of menstrual periods and a resistance to maintaining a healthy weight. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychological disorders. In relation to their peers in the general population, people with anorexia are 18 times more likely to die early, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a secretive binge-purge cycle in which a person eats a large amount of food and then takes compensatory measures to “get rid” of what they just consumed.Symptoms include a loss of control over eating behavior and the regular use of self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, over-exercising and/or fasting, along with an extreme concern over his or her weight. Bulimia can seriously harm the body and cause damage to the digestive system. Electrolyte imbalances from purging can lead to heart failure. People with bulimia usually maintain what is consider to be a “normal” or “healthy” weight, or may be slightly overweight.

Binge eating disorder/EDNOS
Binge eating disorder is characterized by periods of uncontrollable or impulsive eating followed by feelings of self-hate or shame. Unlike people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not purge, but they diet or fast occasionally. Binge eaters can be a “normal” weight, or mildly, moderately or severely overweight or obese. EDNOS is characterized by disordered eating and behaviors that do not meet the full criteria for anorexia or bulimia. This does not mean EDNOS is any less serious. For example, someone may meet most of the criteria for anorexia, but he or she is still technically in the normal weight range.

For more information and specific symptoms and warning signs for all types and degrees of eating disorders, check out NEDA’s website.

Common misconceptions
Connie Quinn, DSW LCSW-R, site director of New York’s Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment clinic, reiterates that eating disorders are about more than food. “Eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, genetic, psychological, social and developmental roots. Over time, an eating disorder can often become a way to help manage feelings.”

Another prevalent myth is that someone, presumably a female teenager, chooses to have an eating disorder for vain or attention-seeking purposes. NEDA says that eating disorders can affect men and women of all ages, races, sexual orientations and socioeconomic standings. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and usually have more to do with low self-esteem and control than beauty and appearance.

You don’t have to let your eating disorder reach the point that you are “sick enough” or hospitalized to get help. All kinds and degrees of disordered eating can have long-term consequences, and the sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances of physical and emotional recovery, experts said.