American media is overcome with its obsession to fitness and beauty, and the message has always been clear: to be valuable, you have to be thin and attractive. And that point is modeled in magazines, pinned to social media feeds and broadcast to living rooms every second of every day. That's a really sad message, and it's without an ounce of truth. Unfortunately, as with any message that gets repeated often enough, we start to believe it, and it absolutely affects the way we see and treat ourselves.
So let's take a closer look at eating and feeding disorders: the different types and symptoms, who it affects and why, and what we can do to find peace within our own bodies.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. As with all eating disorders, their signs, symptoms and behaviors most often begin to appear during someone's teenage years and might coincide with other disorders like depression, anxiety or substance misuse.
But there are many things that contribute to an eating disorder, including:
Eating disorders take a great toll on someone's mental, physical and relational health, and family members may feel completely lost when trying to help.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes eating disorders as an ongoing disturbance to eating or related behaviors that results in a significant change to food intake, and has a clear effect on physical health and psychological well-being. Eating disorders can:
Those attempts to control one's appearance, like controlled eating or purging, are generally the outward signs and symptoms of an eating disorder that friends or family might notice.
As previously mentioned, the signs, symptoms and risks for eating disorders will vary by diagnosis.
Anorexia nervosa is a very serious mental illness and often goes hand-in-hand with other mental health diagnoses like depression, anxiety, substance use and bipolar disorders. When compared to their peers without the diagnosis, adolescents and young adults diagnosed with anorexia nervosa have a ten times greater risk of dying.
In addition to the physical effects, someone diagnosed with anorexia might experience relational damages from:
Much like anorexia, people with bulimia nervosa will often experience other mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and substance misuse.
Binge eating affects men, women and many ethnicities at similar rates across the United States, and the disorder puts someone's physical health at risk because of the increased likelihood of weight gain, obesity and associated medical concerns.
As mentioned previously, eating disorders are common and affect millions of people around the world. It's worth noting, though: the data for eating disorders are sometimes skewed by the varied access to treatment services around the world, and different cultures have different conceptions of eating disorders like binge eating and bulimia. But the following factors generally put someone at an increased risk for an eating disorder:
Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder increase the risk for eating disorders because they affect how a person feels about themselves and how they interact with others. For those diagnosed with depression, it can influence the way a person sees and treats themselves physically. Someone with an anxiety disorder might try to assert control or alleviate tension through eating. And cultural messages about beauty might reinforce any existing insecurities or negative beliefs about self-worth and body image. Then you add any genetic history of eating disorders or family beliefs about body appearance, and it all adds up and contributes to a person's relationship to food and self.
There are a range of treatment options for eating disorders, depending on the severity and urgency of the diagnosis, that can involve a family support system if desired. Consider getting an assessment to figure out the best choice for you:
There is always hope for recovery. If you or a loved one are experiencing signs or symptoms that suggest an eating disorder or unhealthy body image and related behaviors, contact a mental health center or specialist to schedule an assessment. They can help you determine whether you meet the criteria for an eating disorder and get you on track to happiness, health and high self-esteem.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition.
Brewerton TD, Perlman MM, Gavidia I, Suro G, Genet J, Bunnell DW. The Association of Traumatic Events and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder With Greater Eating Disorder and Comorbid Symptom Severity in Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Centers. International Journal of Eat Disorders. 2020;1–6. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23401
Fichter, M. M., & Quadflieg, N. (2016). Mortality in eating disorders – Results of a large prospective clinical longitudinal study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, Epub ahead of print.
Garcia SC, Mikhail ME, Keel PK, et al. Increased rates of eating disorders and their symptoms in women with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2020;1–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat. 23366
National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders
National Eating Disorders Association (2018). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders
National Institute of Mental Health (2016). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml
Smink, F. E., van Hoeken, D., & Hoek, H. W. (2012). Epidemiology of eating disorders: Incidence, prevalence and mortality rates. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(4), 406-414
World Health Organization (2005). Gender in Mental Health Research Series