What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are defined as disturbed eating patterns and behaviors that are connected with thoughts and emotions. Most people with eating disorders are preoccupied with their weight, how their body looks, and experience intense stress around gaining weight, regardless of what their weight is.
Eating disorders frequently coincide with other mental health disorders including anxiety, OCD, and substance abuse. Because mood and brain function are very closely connected to whether or not the body is receiving the food it needs, disordered eating can perpetuate a cycle of feeling bad, restricting or binging food as a result, physically and emotionally feeling bad, etc. Eating disorders manifest themselves in different ways in teens and children, depending on their behaviors and stresses.
People who develop eating disorders typically develop them as teens or young adults, but children can struggle with eating disorders, too. Females are more vulnerable to eating disorders, but males are still very at risk, often because it’s less expected in men.
Anorexia nervosa (anorexia) is an eating disorder that causes affected individuals to severely restrict food or fear eating, which often causes an abnormally low body weight. Individuals with anorexia have a lot of fear or anxiety around gaining weight. Anorexia at its core isn’t really about how much a person weighs—a person who is technically overweight or a person who is already severely underweight can still exhibit harmful anorexic behaviors. People with anorexia subconsciously or consciously seek to have more control over their lives, often in response to emotional problems. Anorexia causes the person who is struggling to obsess over how their body looks, resulting in a skewed self-image, regardless of their actual appearance.
Bulimia nervosa (bulimia) causes those affected with it to seek out ways to burn calories excessively or get rid of calories they consume in unhealthy ways. Many people with anorexia will eat large amounts of food and then purge them from their body shortly after by vomiting or inducing diarrhea with laxatives. As with anorexia, people with bulimia are obsessed with the way their body looks and have a fear of gaining weight. This can lead them to obsessively count calories, along with a variety of other weight-avoidant behaviors.
Occasional or even semi-frequent overeating is common for most people, but people with binge-eating disorder experience an extreme lack of control over the amounts of food they eat. People who struggle with binge-eating disorder consume unusually large amounts of food and are compulsively unable to stop. Regular binge-eating causes intense shame for people who experience it, which can lead binge-eaters to eat food in secret or try to implement diets to avoid overeating. People who struggle with binge-eating disorder are unable to stop themselves from overeating to the point of discomfort, even if they desperately want to.
Recognize the Signs of Eating Disorders
If eating disorders go untreated, they can cause major lifelong health issues, or can even lead to death in people who are unable to retain the calories needed to keep their body running. That’s why it’s important to be able to recognize the signs that you or someone you know has an eating disorder so that you can take steps to receive help.
Eating disorders have a variety of causes, which can be a mix of mental illnesses, stress, low-self esteem, genetic predisposition, and more. The following are signs that someone may be exhibiting disordered eating behaviors:
- Denial of low body weight
- Extreme preoccupation with losing weight or fear of being overweight
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Frequent use of laxatives
- Menstrual cycles that are disrupted or cease altogether due to lack of nutrition
- Restrictive dieting
- Frequently disappearing after meals
- Regularly skipping meals
- Dramatic weight change
- Obsession with exercise and high-energy physical activity
- Distorted body image
- Dry or brittle hair and nails
- Refusing to eat whole categories of foods (carbs, sugar, etc.)
- Mood swings
- Stomach cramps and acid reflux
- Frequently feeling cold
- Dizziness when standing up or participating in physical activities
- Evidence of secret eating habits (food stashed in strange places, excessive amounts of food wrappers, etc.)
Though some people struggle with eating disorders for their whole life, eating disorders can be very treatable, especially if the person struggling seeks treatment and learns healthy coping mechanisms as early as possible. Treatment options vary depending on each person’s needs, but therapy, rehabilitation, inpatient, and outpatient treatment are all options available. If you are unsure where to start to find help and resources, contact your local Area Education Agency for assistance.
If you’re worried you may have an eating disorder, take this confidential assessment from the National Eating Disorders Association.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) also has a helpline available via chat, phone call, or text if you’re seeking support and resources for yourself or someone you know. Call them at 800-931-2237 or visit the NEDA website to learn more about your options.
Support for Students and Parents
If you’re looking for resources to understand more about eating disorders or help a loved one, you can reference the following:
Resources for Educators
If you’re interested in learning more about eating disorders in order to identify disordered eating in your students or support students who come to you for help, you can reference the following: