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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) defines eating disorders as “serious medical illnesses marked by severe disturbances to a person’s eating behavior.” Though there are several different types of eating disorders included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the three most commonly diagnosed types include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, anorexia nervosa is characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. Johns Hopkins defines bulimia nervosa as uncontrolled episodes of overeating (binging) following by purging (i.e. vomiting, abusing laxatives, excessively exercising, etc.). The NIH characterizes binge eating disorder as repeated episodes of uncontrolled intake of exceedingly large amounts of food in a short period of time. While there is significant overlap, each type of eating disorder comes with its own set of signs and symptoms, short and long-term effects, and treatment methods. 

Causes and Risk Factors

There is no single, identifiable cause as to why someone develops an eating disorder. Research has, however, indicated certain biological, psychological, interpersonal and social risk factors that have been noted to increase one’s susceptibility for developing an eating disorder, which can include the following, as provided by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):

  • Biological risk factors: 
    • Scientists continue to research the biochemical and biological causes of eating disorders
    • In some individuals with eating disorders “certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite and digestion have been found to be unbalanced” 
    • Eating disorders tend to run in families indicating a significant genetic contribution to eating disorders
  • Psychological risk factors
    • Feelings of inadequacy
    • Low self-esteem
    • Ineffective coping strategies
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Impulsive behaviors
    • Anger 
  • Interpersonal risk factors
    • Overly concerned with other’s opinions
    • Excessively competitive
    • Troubled personal relationships
    • Difficulty expressing emotions
    • History of sexual and/ or physical abuse
    • History of being ridiculed and/ or teased based on size and/ or weight
  • Social risk factors
    • Pressure to achieve and succeed 
    • Valuing individuals based solely on their physical appearance
    • Stress related to ethnic, racial, size/ weight-related or other forms of discrimination or prejudice
    • Cultural emphasis placed on thinness as an inextricable part of beauty
    • Media and pop culture’s unrealistic portrayal of people’s bodies and shapes

Constantly engaging in weight loss and diets that involve severely restricting food intake to the point of continued hunger can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. This way of eating can not only cause adverse affects to one’s energy levels, but it can also impact one’s physical health as it prohibits one’s ability to extract and absorb the needed vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are innately sourced from consuming food. 

Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Every person is different and will likely exhibit a somewhat unique set of signs and symptoms as they relate to the presence of an eating disorder. Furthermore, the type of eating disorder an individual struggles with will influence the signs and symptoms experienced. The Mayo Clinic provides a list of examples of behaviors that could be indicative of an eating disorder, some of which include the following: 

  • Obsessively focusing on healthy eating
  • Skipping meals 
  • Withdrawing form social activities
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Adhering to an overly restrictive diet 
  • Preparing separate meals when eating in a group instead of eating what everyone else is eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Constantly checking the mirror and/ or pointing out perceived flaws
  • Using laxatives, herbal weight loss products, and/ or dietary supplements
  • Regularly excusing oneself during meals to use the restroom
  • Eating in secret
  • Expressing disgust, shame, and/ or guilt about one’s eating habits

The severity and duration of symptoms will fully depend on the individual. There are a variety of treatment options available to an individual struggling with an eating disorder. If left untreated, continued malnutrition that occurs with an untreated eating disorder can lead to severe short and long-term consequences. Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses and the sooner one obtains treatment the sooner he or she can begin the recovery process and go on to live a healthy and fulfilling life.