About Eating Disorders

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Eating Disorders and their Harmful Effects

Eating disorders are harmful to people's physical and psychological wellbeing. Eating disorders are a broad term for illnesses that have a significant association to disordered eating and body image relationships. Body image distortions can cause significant variations in eating and exercise habits. Excessive dieting, over-exercising, fasting, vomiting, binge eating, and the use of drugs such as slimming pills, laxatives, and diuretics could then ensue. A problematic relationship with food is frequently used to compensate for emotional problems.

Co-morbidity of Mental Disease and Eating Disorders

Co-morbidity of mental disease and eating disorders occurs to a considerable extent. In fact, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, low self-esteem and substance abuse are dominant in people with eating disorders (Culbert, Racine, & Klump, 2015). Although it affects people of all ages and gender, it has been observed to have its peak among adolescents and in women more than men. The process leading to these disorders is gradual. It may start as an impulse to eat less or more until it eventually blows out of proportion. There are various types of eating disorders. These are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Pica, Rumination disorder, Avoidant food intake disorder and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) (Gay, 2003).

Anorexia Nervosa: Distorted Body Image and Fear of Weight Gain

Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa have a distorted body image and have a neurotic fear of gaining weight. People consider themselves overweight even when they are undoubtedly underweight (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). They thus engage in relentless pursuits such as self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, intense dieting, and use of medication to attain an 'ideal' body. Typical of Anorexia Nervosa patients is weighing themselves often, intake of controlled portions of food and consuming only certain types of foods (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). Since the body is deprived, malnutrition and multiple organ failures occur. Anorexic patients are thus considered to have the highest mortality rate.

Bulimia Nervosa: Binge-Purge Cycle

Bulimia Nervosa is a binge-purge cycle. One over eats then to compensate for their actions; purge. Purging involves extreme dieting, induced vomiting, and use of medication and over exercising (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). Over time, these activities become increasingly compulsive and difficult to control to an individual who is often already overwhelmed with low self-esteem and guilt. The primary difference between Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa is that while persons with Anorexia Nervosa are underweight, those with Bulimia Nervosa maintain a healthy weight (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa include: worn out tooth enamel because of stomach acids in the vomit, gastrointestinal issues, chronically sore throat and dehydration from the purge.

Binge Eating Disorder: Excessive Eating Without Purging

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by an out of control excessive eating. It is unlike the case of Bulimia Nervosa; individuals don't purge afterward (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). These people eventually end up being overweight and with an intense feeling of guilt and shame after the binge sessions. People with Binge Eating Disorder are at a high risk of getting cardiovascular diseases.

Pica: Cravings to Consume Nonfoods

Pica is an eating disorder characterized by cravings to consume nonfoods. One can consume soil, chalk, plastics and other substances that have no nutritional value to the body (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). These can lead to intestinal obstruction, choking, parasitic infection and dental abrasion. Pica has been linked to iron and zinc deficiency, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, malnutrition, mental retardation, developmental problems, and pregnancy. The habit must last for at least a month for one to be diagnosed with pica.

Avoidant Food Intake Disorder: Disinterest, Dislike, and Fear of Food

Disinterest in food, dislike of certain food types because of their smell, color and so on, fear of eating because of the consequences (other than gaining weight) are all part of avoidant food intake disorder. The consequences of eating that one might be afraid of include choking and stomach upsets. It causes malnutrition.

Rumination Disorder: Involuntary Regurgitation of Food

Rumination is an involuntary process. Food that had already been swallowed is brought back to the mouth due to muscle contractions. This food is rechewed yet another time and swallowed or spit out (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). Persons with rumination disorder tend to be malnutrition because of the spitting of food or because of reducing their intake of food to prevent regurgitation. This disorder is common in children or individuals with mental illness.

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)

Any other eating disorder that cannot be definitively identified as one of the above six explained eating disorders is categorized in the Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders. For example, an individual who eats very little food has a dysfunctional body image and has normal weight is said to have OSFED (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). This person almost qualifies to be anorexic but doesn't meet the underweight criterion.

Causes of Eating Disorder

Indicators of an eating disorder can be physical, behavioral, or psychological. Physical indicators are those relating to the body. They include weight fluctuations, fainting, a shift in menstrual pattern, swollen jaws, and sensitive teeth due to vomiting. Behavioral signs describe the changes in mannerism (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). These changes comprise anomalous eating speed, incorrigible dieting, overly limiting the quantity of food that one takes, alternating periods of overeating and undereating, an obsession with the number of calories in food, going to the bathroom after meals, eating only certain types of food, and avoiding social meetings that involve food. Psychological pointers include depression, anxiety, oversensitivity to comments about food, weight, and body image, withdrawal from friends and family, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and a distorted body image (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaana, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). Some scholars argue against the popular myth that eating disorders are a result of controlling parent or just the desire to be thin. She attributes eating disorders to a complex fusion of biological, mental, and social factors. These and other factors risk eating disorders in people.

The Role of Genetics in Eating Disorders

More than just inheritance is the way genes interact with one another. Gene interaction can result in an eating disorder. Just like genes are a basis for psychiatric disorders, so are they for eating disorders. The genetic predisposition of a person determines how they respond to environmental factors (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). It is playing a huge role in their mental constancy and consequently eating patterns. For example, molecular genetic studies aimed at identifying the genes related to eating disorders suggest that the genes responsible for mood, weight control, and reward as well as appetite control were responsible for eating disorders. The gene-dependent traits that have been linked to eating disorders include obsessive thinking, over endurance, neuroticism, sensitivity, and perfectionism. Genetics play a huge role in determining whether one will be involved in a certain sport or not. Some sports are known elevate the risk level of acquiring an eating disorder (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). The implication of this is that eating disorders can be inherited. Other biological factors such as hormonal imbalance and nutritional deficiencies cause eating disorders.

Social and Environmental Factors

Dieting in most cases is a result of social pressures. Although a vast majority go through the process of controlling their intake of food, most come out without getting an eating disorder. To some though, this is a precipitate to an eating disorder (Mitchell, Devlin, Zwaan, Peterson, & Crow, 2007). It is often the case if the individuals are already predisposed to the risk of acquiring an eating disorder. They become obsessed with the number of calories, fat content in food, and the types of food they can eat and so on. It is especially true for people with Anorexia Nervosa.

Cultural ideals such promoting thin bodies as the 'perfect' bodies have contributed largely to eating disorders. With these, the feeling of inadequacy is bound to set in. To conform to the societal standards, some go to extreme lengths (Culbert, Racine, & Klump, 2015). Habits such as dieting, exercising and use of medications to lose weight become excessive and compulsive.

Other environmental factors that risk eating disorders include professions and sports that promote very specific bodies for better performance. For example, ballet, modeling industry, gymnastics, diving, and long-distance running that promote lean bodies. A dysfunctional family can also lead to eating disorder by triggering stress or depression (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). Childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or a history of being tormented for being overweight can cause mental and body image issues respectively also resulting in eating disorders.

Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and stress cause eating disorders. Lack of skills to cope with negative experiences has been attributed to eating disorders. Those who don't know how to handle negative experiences tend to resort to food as a source of comfort or avoid food when they become suicidal (Smolak, Striegel-Moore, & Levine, 2013). The negative experiences may also trigger the above-mentioned psychological factors.

Treatment of Eating Disorder

Treatment offered to patients with eating disorders is aimed at restoring their eating habits to a healthy level. Because of the close correlation between mental health and physical health in eating disorders, both have to be considered in treatment (Culbert, Racine, & Klump, 2015). Psychotherapy is recommended to aid an individual with eating disorders to understand the underlying cause and triggers of their condition. Medications are also given to help deal with the symptoms.


Culbert, K. M., Racine, S. E., & Klump, K. L. (2015). Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders-a synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56(11), 11-41.

Gay, K. (2003). Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating. Enslow Publishers.

Mitchell, J. E., Devlin, M. J., Zwaan, M. d., Peterson, C. B., & Crow, S. J. (2007). Binge-Eating Disorder: Clinical Foundations and Treatment. Guilford Press.

Smolak, L., Striegel-Moore, R. H., & & Levine, M. P. (2013). The developmental psychopathology of eating disorders: Implications for research, prevention, and treatment. Routledge.

April 19, 2023



Mental Health Illness

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