About Eating Disorders

What is an Eating Disorder?

In recent years, anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating have become more identified and studied than ever before. Reports show that up to 24 million people of all ages and gender suffer from an eating disorder in the US. 

 

Eating disorders are not about food, but about feelings. Most people develop eating disorders as a way of coping with difficult feelings. At some point, however, eating disorders can take on a life of their own and become so habitual and ingrained that the person now feels powerless to stop the behaviors. 

 

Therapy can help people to understand and recover from their eating disorders. The therapeutic process helps people develop new ways of coping with stressful situations. They learn to identify feelings and cope in healthier ways. There are also ways to help someone manage the habitual tendencies of the eating disorder.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are three main types of eating disorders. To learn more about types of eating disorders, symptoms, and warning signs, please see National Eating Disorder Awareness website:

Image by Andra C Taylor Jr

Causes of Eating Disorders

Biological Factors

Breakfast Table

Eating disorders often run in family histories and research shows that the risk of developing an eating disorder is 50-80% determined by genetics. Women with a mother or sister who has/has had Anorexia Nervosa are 12 times more likely than others to develop it themselves. They are four times more likely to develop Bulimia. Also, once individuals begin to starve themselves, binge eat, or purge, those behaviors in and of themselves can alter brain chemistry and exacerbate the eating disorder. That being said, family members are never to blame nor responsible for the development of an eating disorder.

Psychological Factors

Rock Balancing

Eating disorders have substantial co-morbidity with other mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and personality disorders. Eating disorders never occur "first," but rather are a maladaptive coping skill used to manage other co-occuring diagnosis or relational distress. Treating an eating disorder means learning to manage both the direct ED behaviors and understanding and treating underlying conditions.

Social Factors

Woman taking a picture of her meal

With unrealistic pressures to obtain the "perfect" body, the constant influx of images of perfection, and narrow definitions of beauty, the media and societal expectations definitely influence our self-esteem and self-worth. From a very early age, we learn that in order to be accepted, we must emulate the messages we were taught by various outlets (such as "thin is beautiful" and other "standards of beauty"). We also live in a world full of fatphobia and a culture that oppresses certain body sizes. When we value certain bodies over others, internalized fears about weight and size impact our ability to trust our body.

Being Teased for Size or Weight

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If an individual was constantly made fun of (name-calling, jokes, etc.) when growing up, they might be inclined to turn to/away from food as a coping mechanism. We live in a society that oppresses body sizes and turns neutral descriptive words for bodies as insults and slurs. Society is not weight inclusive in its offerings of clothing sizes, diversity of models, or accommodating of all body sizes in various environmental settings. This, coupled with stigmatization of health and body sizes, can impact body trust and ability to have a peaceful relationship with food.

Interpersonal Factors

Closeup of Succulent Plants

Life experiences that disrupt attachment, emotion regulation, and sense of self impact the body physically and mentally. Studies have shown that there are a high number of people suffering with eating disorders who have been subjected to some form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Many of these people have found that their eating disorders help to protect them, repress or block out the memories, or numb their feelings.

Traumatic Life Event(s)

Man Walking in Fields

Disordered eating may arise as a result of a death, loss, or abandonment. Because of an inability to mourn and/or cope, the individual will attempt to numb his/her feelings through restriction, bingeing and purging, or bingeing. According to one study, the majority of individuals with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder reported a history of interpersonal trauma. Rates of PTSD were significantly higher among women and men with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Subthreshold PTSD was more prevalent than threshold PTSD among women with bulimia nervosa and men with binge eating disorder (NEDA).