Jan 13, 2012 | By Tim Stoddart

Eating Disorders Explained


I was someone that suffered from anorexia and was sometimes told I had bulimirexia (I do not think this term exists as a formal eating disorder anymore).  Living with an eating disorder is not easy.  The secrets, the lies, and the constant lack of control always preoccupied my mind.  At the time of discontent the life of an eating disorder seems like it might solve all of the problems related to the self – the insecurity, the lack of self-esteem, the negative self-talk, and self-image. At the moment in time it seems to solve all of the problems, however the torment and destruction that the eating disorder can cause to one’s body through years of harm can be irreversible.

In the long run the road to recovery is hard and arduous. Once one gets on the road of disordered eating it is hard to find the clear path to health again. Recovery from any type of eating disorder is never an easy process, however it didn’t take me overnight to get that way. For me, an eating disorder is an un-acquired search for perfection that one will never attain. These thoughts of how you can control yourself, and by controlling the intake of one’s food can make you feel like you are in control. Throughout time, perfection has been seen differently.  However, we always look to ourselves and how we can change the self to fit the mold of others (including society).  An eating disorder is not only about fitting a “perfect” mold constructed by others but also by the self. It is a world of control, sorrow, anger, and confusion.  I lived all parts of the life and sometimes still fight the thoughts of my old eating disorder life.

Eating Disorders Explained

An eating disorder is a process addiction. Process addictions occur when someone becomes addicted to a rewarding behavior that does not involve an addictive substance, such as gambling, sex, or eating. Sometimes referred to as behavioral addictions, or compulsive behaviors, process addictions involve compulsion to perform an action despite negative consequences. In this way people can suffer from dependence on certain processes — they are reliant upon and/or controlled by the addiction as their primary way of dealing with life.

There are many different types of eating disorders.  Most people are only familiar with three, anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating.  These are the easiest and most complicated categories from which most of the other types are derived.  There are four eating disorders that are recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)

An eating disorder is an illness that is characterized by irregular eating habits. Eating disorders occur in both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and from all cultural backgrounds. Many people who have eating disorders also present with depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders or substance abuse problems. As the name would suggest a disorder, they are not an infection or disease. More often than not, the difficulty with an eating disorder is that the disorder itself is a symptom of a more deep-seeded problem or issue. These issues are usually psychological, which of course makes it difficult to tell whether a child may have an eating disorder.

Individuals can have an eating disorder and yet appear to have a healthy normal appetite. However, the term also includes person who might abuse one or a number of diet related drugs such as laxatives, diuretics, over the counter diet pills, or other drugs that induce vomiting. Slightly more serious drugs may include cocaine and other stimulant narcotics that have a hunger suppressing side effect. An additional form of an eating disorder comes in the form of someone who may be involved in excessive sport or otherwise exercise almost obsessively in an attempt to lose weight.


At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States and every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. 0.9% of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime, 1.5% of American women suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime, and 2.8% of American adults suffer from binge eating disorder in their lifetime. Anorexia nervosa remains the most deadly of all psychiatric disorders, with a 5-10% death rate within 10 years of developing the symptoms, and an 18-20% death rate within 20 years. Addiction is understood to be a chronic, relapsing disease that affects brain function and behavior. It is also a treatable disease. Research suggests that nearly 50% of individuals with an eating disorder (ED) are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol, a rate 5 times greater than what is seen in the general population.

An In Depth Look

Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for both women and men. So what does each type of eating disorder involve? What defines an eating disorder? We will highlight each of them below as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

  • Bulimia Nervosa – This eating disorder is typically characterized by repeated binge eating of large quantities of food followed by behaviors that compensate for the overeating, such as forced vomiting, excessive exercise, or extreme use of laxative or diuretics. Men and women from suffer from Bulimia may have an extreme fear of weight gain and feel severely unhappy with their body size and shape. The binge-eating and purging cycle is typically done in secret. This can create feelings of shame, guilt, and lack of control. Bulimia can have devastating effects including gastrointestinal problems, dehydration, and heart difficulties resulting from electrolyte imbalance.
  • Anorexia Nervosa – The individual suffering form anorexia may have an obsessive and severe fear of gaining weight, refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an unrealistic perception of body image. Most people with anorexia will limit the quantity of food they consume and view themselves as over weight, although in many cases they happen to be underweight. Anorexia can have damaging health effects including brain damage, organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties and infertility. The risk of death is highest with anorexia.
  • Binge Eating Disorder – Men and women who suffer from Binge Eating Disorder will frequently lose control over their eating. These episodes of binge-eating are not followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging, fasting, or exercise (like bulimia). Because of this, many individuals suffering from a Binge Eating Disorder may occur obese and have an increased risk of developing outside conditions such as cardiovascular disease. People who suffer from this may also experience feelings of guilt, distress and embarrassment as a direct result from their binge-eating, which could potentially influence further progression of the eating disorder.
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) – This diagnosis is applied when an individual’s symptoms cause significant distress, however do not fit neatly within the strict criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Previously, EDNOS encompassed a large group of individuals and was the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder. Approximately 40-60% of cases in eating disorder treatment centers fell into the EDNOS category and about 75% of individuals with eating disorders seen at non-specialty community settings had EDNOS.

How Do You Know If You Have A Problem?

What percentage of your day do you spend thinking or preoccupied with food, weight, and body image? If your answer is that you spend so much time with these concerns that it interferes with your happiness or functioning, then you may need to look deeper into the characteristics of an eating disorder.

Common symptoms of anorexia:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level
  • Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
  • Feeling “fat” or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Common symptoms of bulimia:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
  • Purging after a binge, typically by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Common symptoms of binge-eating disorder:

  • Repeated episodes of compulsive, uncontrolled continuous eating beyond the point of feeling full.
  • Sporadic fasts or repetitive diets
  • Feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge
  • Body weight from normal to mild, moderate or severe obesity.

Common symptoms of EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified):

  • A constant awareness, bordering on obsession with food, calorie counting, exercise, and weight.
  • Behaviors that are meant to compensate for eating, which can include vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising. Binging or compensating may not be initially obvious. Signs include the disappearance of food in large quantities, spending a lot of time alone, or spending a long period of time eating.
  • Restricting food intake and calorie consumption.
  • Cycles of restricting food, binging, feelings of shame and guilt, and then purging.
  • Rules about food, such as foods that can never be eaten, times of day to avoid eating, and others.

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Eating Disorders And The Brain

When someone suffers from an eating disorder, disrupted eating behaviors negatively affect adequate nutrition absorption, therefore, the brain does not get the nutrients it needs to function properly. This is especially concerning in adolescents, as brain development occurs through early adulthood – meaning that significant periods of growth could be disrupted.

For people with anorexia, starvation actually can make them feel better by decreasing the serotonin in their brains. While they continue to starve themselves, the brain responds by increasing the number of serotonin receptors to more efficiently utilize the remaining serotonin. In order to keep feeling better, the person needs to starve themselves further, creating a vicious cycle. When someone with anorexia starts eating again serotonin levels can spike, causing extreme anxiety and emotional chaos.

Individuals with bulimia also have dysfunctions in their serotonin circuit. Those with bulimia, appear to have somewhat different alterations than those with anorexia. When going without food for longer periods of time like during sleep, those with bulimia had a larger drop in serotonin levels than women without eating disorders. This in turn leads to binge eating and increased irritability. Researchers have also found that women with bulimia who carried a particular variant of a serotonin receptor were also significantly more impulsive.

For those with a binge eating disorder, serotonin changes appear fairly similar to those found in bulimia, however research is more limited. Studied have concluded that individuals with binge eating disorder may also suffer from chronically low serotonin levels, which is thought to contribute to binge eating in an attempt to relieve the depressed mood from the low serotonin.

Risk Factors

Eating disorder’s cannot be blamed for a single identifiable cause. There are factors of psychological, biological, and social risks that can increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing. Eating disorders do not discriminate and can occur across all ages, genders, and socio-economic groups. Potential risk factors can include:

Psychological Factors

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression and aniety
  • Perfectionism
  • Ineffective coping strategies
  • Fear of avoidance or conflict
  • Difficulty expressing emotions
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • “Black and white” thinking – thinking to extremes

Social Factors

  • Cultural value and pressure placed on thinness as apart of beauty
  • Pressure to achieve and succeed
  • Placing one’s value and worth on external appearance
  • Media and popular cultures portrayal of shapes and bodies

Biological Factors

  • Imbalance of chemicals in the brain
  • Hormonal and physical changes
  • Genetic factors – a person who has a parent or sibling with an eating disorder have a higher risk of developing one.

External Factors

  • Major life events and changes
  • Dieting
  • Peer pressure
  • Inability to effectively cope with stress
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Bullying – especially based on weight or size
  • Trouble in the home

Short-Term Effects Of An Eating Disorder

Eating disorders can have a will have a very dangerous effect on your body and mind. If you do have an eating disorder, odd’s are is that that you are afraid of gaining wait, so you avoid eating or eat excessively until you are sick or induce sickness artificially. To start the weight loss may be hardly noticeable or look unhealthy. However within a short time frame, the weight loss becomes dramatic and bring a host of related complications. Some of these can include:
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

Long-Term Effects Of An Eating Disorder

Eating disorders that actually relate directly to what you eat or drink will affect body functions. As the disorder progresses, your digestion will slow causing constipation, this is an instinctive survival mechanism for the human body. As you lose more weight you will find you feel cold constantly. Not only because you will have lost much of the protective body fat layer, but also as you progress your system will have less fat to burn and convert to fuel for the body. At this stage you will also start to feel constantly weak and tired, your system will start to break down muscle tissue and healthy organs as fuel with devastating consequences.

Some additional consequences can include:

  • Bone weakening
  • Seizures
  • Thyroid problems
  • Tooth decay
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Abnormally low blood-pressure
  • Amenorrhea (absence of menstruation in females)
  • Lowered testosterone in males
  • Low potassium levels in the blood
  • Death from health complications

Eating Disorders In Men

In the past, eating disorders have been characterized as “women’s problems” and men have been stigmatized from coming forward or have been unaware that they could have an eating disorder. Studies have shown an increase in the numbers, although it is uncertain whether more males actually have eating disorders now or are becoming more aware of the gender-neutral nature of them. Males are also are exposed to unique cultural messages that can increase their vulnerability towards developing an eating disorder. The cultural messages that we commonly see in today’s world do not reflect the realities of mental and physical health in males. Some of these messages can include:

  • Males should only have one body type – the ideal body shape for men is portrayed in media platforms as a lean and muscular physique
  • Males need to be in control – an expectation is often placed on males to ‘take charge’ and be ‘in control’. Males can sometimes displace these anxieties onto their bodies.
  • Eating disorders are not masculine – a desire not to appear weak or vulnerable has led to a stigma around men with eating disorders that delays treatment and support. This stigma has been further exacerbated by the popular misconception that eating disorders are a ‘female’s disease’.

Who Can Develop An Eating Disorder

addiction therapyIn short, anyone male or female, young or old, and from all walks of life can develop an eating disorder. However, eating disorders are far more common in teens than in adults and can seldom be found past twenty. Eating disorders are also more common among females than males, however there is a wide population among men diagnosed with one. Perhaps this is because society puts much more pressure on women to be thin than on men, or that young women may be more sensitive to this pressure.

Young females who suffer low self-esteem or some form of depression seem particularly vulnerable to forming an eating disorder, as are these that are regular high-achievers. These groups may use anorexia as means to obtain better control over their lives. If they feel that their parents, teachers or others are taking excess control and making more and more decisions for them, they can potentially start to restrict the amount of food that they eat to gain control at least over that aspect of their life.

Teen eating disorders are still on the rise, and it is becoming more difficult to tell whether a child may have an eating disorder. Currently in excess of nine million Americans suffer from some sort of eating disorder, with over ninety percent of those who suffer are female, and of that ninety percent half of the newly diagnosed cases are girls in their teens. The number of males with eating disorders has increased, although these numbers are difficult to determine exactly. This is mainly due to the condition not being reported as well as wrong diagnosis’s when a report is made.

Treating An Eating Disorder Can Be Difficult

An eating disorder is not just a behavioral issue. When treating someone with an eating disorder this involves treating the patient’s relationship with food, health, nutrition, habits, co-existing conditions and the problems that initially triggered the eating disorder.

Often times, because an eating disorder is a very personal and secret battle, people may feel like they are fighting it alone and often times feel that nobody understands their struggles. This can cause a patient to backslide and return to their old mal-adaptive way of eating. There are many who have reached long-term sobriety from their eating disorder and have sought out help to understand that they are not alone. Talking to others who are working on recovering can remind the patient they are not alone and this connection can support them through the treatment process.Eating disorder help is available through:

  • Therapy
  • Support groups
  • Online support groups, forums and discussions
  • Faith groups

However, just because someone has gone through extensive treatment and have reverted back to their old patterns of eating does not mean that they failed. It means that they must try an alternate way of treating the eating disorder. A relapse with eating disorders can cause much shame, however it is crucial that the individual face the shame and continue on the path of recovery.

The Importance of Eating Disorder Treatment

Eating disorders are serious health conditions that can be both physically and emotionally destructive. However recovery from an eating disorder is possible. The most effective treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. This can involve going away to treatment for a period of time, or attending outpatient appointments. Some medications have been shown to be helpful. Ideally, whatever treatment is offered should be tailored to the individual; this will vary according to both the severity of the disorder and the patient’s individual problems, needs and strengths.

Typically, when an individual seeks help for an eating disorder, they are suggest to put together a treatment team. Most eating disorder facilities and organizations tout the necessity for a combined treatment approach in eating disorder treatment and recovery. This may involve a nutritionist for guided nutritional support, a physician for physical support, and a psychologist to help with therapy and underlying issues. Fighting the disorder from all sides can help in reclaiming power over an individuals body and mind, as well as bring them closer to full recovery.

Help for anorexia and bulimia is generally available at medical care facilities, through private practitioners and through community or faith-based groups. Treatment types include:

  • Acute, medical care, typically through a hospital
  • Ongoing psychiatric care, possibly including medication
  • Inpatient or outpatient programs, typically eating disorder specialized
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Psychological counseling
  • Group therapy / Self-paced

Suffering with an eating disorder can be progressive, and if not treated will ultimately become fatal. In order to fully recover from its devastating effects you need to understand all the effects as well as all of your available options. As the leading provider of information regarding addiction and treatment on the internet, the experienced staff at Sober Nation are able to provide you with the information and support you need to break the cycle of your eating disorder. Regardless of where you live, how much money you have, or how severe your disorder is, there is a treatment center that can help you recover. Don’t wait another day. Contact Sober Nation today.

You can always reach us at our 24 confidential hotline at 866-317-7050

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