Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect around 9% of the world’s population (mostly women). They are characterized by abnormal eating habits that involve either insufficient or excessive food intake and can have serious physical and mental health consequences. According to research, eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any other psychiatric disorder. Even with such a high mortality rate, researchers are struggling to fully understand the complexity of eating disorders and how to help those who struggle with them.
Types of eating disorders
Most people know about the two most common eating disorders—anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, there are other types of eating disorders, each with a unique set of characteristics that requires a different approach to resolve.
- Anorexia Nervosa - Most commonly called “anorexia”, this eating disorder is known for lack of appropriate weight and extreme restriction in the types and amounts of foods a person is willing to eat. Symptoms include dramatic weight loss, low body weight, dressing in layers to hide weight loss, strict restriction of calorie intake, hair loss, and fatigue.
- Bulimia Nervosa - Most commonly called “bulimia”, this eating disorder is known for lack of appropriate weight and cycles of binging and purging. Symptoms include dramatic weight loss, low body weight, dressing in layers to hide weight loss, self-induced vomiting after eating, overeating (or “binging”) before vomiting, hair loss, dental decay, and fatigue.
- Binge Eating Disorder - Also known as “BED”, binge eating disorder is characterized by episodes of overeating—usually to the point of discomfort. Other symptoms include feeling a lack of control over the ability to stop eating, stealing or hoarding food, weight gain, obesity, and eating alone in an attempt to hide the amount of food consumed.
- Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) - This eating disorder is often associated with people who have some symptoms of anorexia or bulimia, but those symptoms are not very extreme. Symptoms include episodes of consuming large amounts of food, followed by extreme weight loss tactics (such as constantly trying new diets or extreme regimens of exercise).
- Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) - This eating disorder is not associated with symptoms of low self-esteem or body dysmorphia like other eating disorders. Instead, this disorder results when someone has extreme aversions to the tastes or textures of certain foods. This may cause them to avoid food to the point of having a low body weight, or trouble keeping their body weight within a healthy range. Symptoms include a limited range of preferred foods, “picky eating” that gets worse over time, fear of vomiting, and occasionally pica (an eating disorder that involves eating things that have no nutritional value such as hair, dirt, paper, etc…)
- Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED) - This disorder includes eating disorders that do not meet the specifications of other eating disorders, but still have a significant impact on health and well-being.
Causes of eating disorders
There isn't any specific and clear-cut reason why some people develop eating disorders—and the symptoms of each may vary greatly from person to person. Many times, a combination of biological, psychological, and social or environmental factors leads to the development of an eating disorder.
- Biological factors - Anxiety, sensitivity to events and situations around us, and the size of the orbitofrontal cortex (which may impair the capacity to stop eating) are all biological factors that may be present from birth in those who develop an eating disorder. Inherited or learned characteristics such as perfectionism, rigidity, harm aversion, and obsessions have a significant role in the development of the eating disorder. Estrogen may also have a role in the onset of eating disorders because it affects eating behavior.
- Psychological factors - Stress significantly influences a person's neurobiology, which may directly affect whether or not they develop an eating disorder. There are a number of interpersonal situations that may lead to stress, such as conflict with family, friends, or co-workers, or a lack of confidence in the ability to communicate with others. People with an eating disorder may have a history of experiencing abuse (including physical, mental, and sexual abuse, as well as experiencing being bullied). Low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and a lack of control are also some of the psychological factors that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
- Social and environmental factors - The inability to rely on familiar people and places influenced can be disrupted by social isolation or limited social networking—there was a dramatic increase in this during the height of the recent pandemic. Moreover, the pressure to conform to conventional beauty standards is overwhelming and can push someone into trying extreme measures to “fit in”. Since eating is often associated with pleasure, turning to food in times of stress can feel comforting. This is another way that eating disorders can develop.
Who is at risk for developing an eating disorder?
While anyone can develop eating disorders, there are certain risk factors that may make someone more susceptible to the disorder. These risk factors include:
- A history of dieting or disordered eating
- Body dysmorphia (a disorder in which you perceive your body as undesirable), a negative self-image, or a perfectionistic personality
- A history of abuse, especially abuse that is related to a certain body image (such as being bullied for weight)
Eating disorders are also more common in those with a family history of eating disorders or other mental health disorders. People who have a parent or sibling with an eating disorder are at a much higher risk of developing an eating disorder themselves.
Getting support for an eating disorder
Effective therapy and rehabilitation can be molded to fit the needs of each unique person and situation. Some of the available options for eating disorder recovery include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- General therapy (this is especially useful for people who struggle with a disordered perception of how their body looks or is supposed to look)
- Nutritional guidance
Mental health support is essential for recovering from an eating disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, Medens Health is ready to help you. Contact us by phone or text at (833) 624-5400, or fill out our online contact form to get started!
The information provided in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided in this blog is solely at your own risk. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical or mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who is qualified to give you safe, professional, and ethical advice regarding your mental health.
If you or someone you are responsible for is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should call 9-1-1 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room.