Eating disorders 101
Eating disorders are serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors. Obsessions with food, body weight and shape may also signal an eating disorder. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
When your relationship with food causes a negative impact on your life, it’s important to remember that support is available.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) recognizes the following as eating disorders:
- refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height
- intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight
- recurrent episodes of binge eating
- recurrent behavior that prevents weight gain
- this behavior may include self-induced vomiting; misuse/abuse of laxatives or diuretics; and/or fasting or excessive exercise
Binge eating disorder
- uncontrollable episodes of binge eating
- eating much more rapidly than normal
- eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
- feelings disgust or guilt after overeating
Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS)
- must be determined that there is a severe eating disorder
- no positive diagnostic criteria for EDNOS need to be fulfilled
- diagnosis by exclusion of other eating disorders
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates 9% of the US population, or 28.8 million in 2020 (20 million in 2019) American will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. updated source in 2024.
The pressure of contributing factors
Those suffering from eating disorders “have significantly elevated mortality rates.” The highest mortality rates involve those suffering from anorexia nervosa. Experts point to a variety of biological, psychological and cultural factors that can lead to these disorders.
These can include social factors such as:
- societal representations of the ideal body shape as slim and fit
- peer and societal pressure to achieve and maintain the ideal body type
- societal tendency to prioritize image
Eating disorders may be triggered by:
- taking on new or changed responsibilities
- believing that love and acceptance hinges on image
- not having a strong support system or communication with loved ones
- ending of a relationship
- experiencing pregnancy and/or childbirth
- grieving the loss of a loved one
Mental and emotional triggers can also include:
- having little to no self-esteem
- having a distorted body image
- being too focused on achieving perfection
- experiencing feelings of depression and/or anxiety
- having obsessive thoughts
Biological changes due to puberty and adolescence, genetics and family traditions that emphasize food and image can also lead to eating disorders.
Mental wellness at risk
Eating disorders affect your physical and mental health and are widely considered to be life-threatening conditions. Combined, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Up to 50% of those living with anorexia nervosa “have a comorbid mood disorder, such as depression.” Close to half of those living with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and EDNOS have such a mood disorder as well.
Millions of people across the globe are impacted by the mental anguish of eating disorders. It’s so dire that 1 in 5 anorexia deaths is by suicide. When you or a loved one needs support, it’s crucial to act with urgency.
Let’s look at 3 essential tips to help you overcome your eating disorder.
Tip #1: Be aware of your social triggers
You may be having a tough time with friends. Or you may be ending a relationship. It may be tempting to turn to your disordered eating to provide you with a sense of comfort.
Distract yourself. Read a book, watch a movie, Yoga Breathing for Stress and Anxiety, work on a home project or reach out to trusted family members. Stay aware of your triggers. Have a plan to reset your thinking. Give yourself time to do an activity that bring you peace.
Tip #2: Show gratitude to yourself
Being grateful for taking the first step toward recovery and for making progress is a vital part of maintaining lifelong recovery. Recognize the power of the steps you’re taking to change your life. Take the focus off of food. Replace it on your journey toward healthier choices.
Tip #3: Seek professional treatment
Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Help and support groups widely available for each type of eating disorder. With proper eating disorder treatment, you can:
- combat your physical and emotional pain
- receive nutritional counseling
- reassess thought patterns
- receive multiple levels of care
Treatment options include:
This level of treatment may be helpful for those with busy lives. Your treatment team can help to identify the lowest level of care that still successfully treats your particular condition.
You may receive outpatient treatment right away or after you complete inpatient treatment. You may also meet with a team including a mental health professional, a doctor and a nutrition counselor/dietician. This team will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses your concerns and needs.
This level of treatment may be helpful for those who need a more intensive approach than outpatient care. You have the opportunity to receive care and to relearn habits and thought patterns in a supervised atmosphere.
You may need this level of care if you’re experiencing physical health concerns. The structure of this type of treatment allows you to focus fully on your recovery.
This level of treatment allows you to delve more deeply into the root causes of your disorder. It can also help you explore your relationships with loved ones and with food and help you establish healthy coping mechanisms.
If you’re experiencing other concerns with your mental health such as anxiety and/or depression, this level of care can treat those as well.
The bottom line
There’s no doubt the road to recovery is challenging. Eating disorders take a layered toll on our bodies. With each meal, we can take a step toward improved relationships with food. However, that first step can be the most difficult one to take.
Heroes’ Mile has a digital screening tool for eating disorder available to help veterans in Florida.
How did you overcome eating disorder pain?
Tell us about your journey in the comments below.
Updated in February 2024 with new information and resources