What Is an Eating Disorder?

What is an eating disorder?An eating disorder is a mental health problem that occurs when a person has an unhealthy relationship with food. This can mean a lot of things, including:

  • Severely restricting food due to a belief that one is overweight or somehow unattractive (anorexia nervosa)
  • Binging food – eating large amounts of food at one time (binge eating)
  • Purging food – making oneself vomit food or pass food quickly using laxatives or other drugs or even exercising in extreme amounts (bulimia nervosa)
  • Unhealthy obsession with eating or food
  • Using food as a method of self-comfort in unhealthy ways

Eating disorders can take many forms and might look different for each individual person. The key difference between an eating disorder and unhealthy eating is that the person with disordered eating has lost control of the unhealthy food habits and cannot help him or herself from starving, binging or purging.

Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder

Here are some indicators that you or your loved one may have an eating disorder:

  • Person has a strong dislike or hatred for his or her own body
  • Person has a strong need to control things around him or her
  • Person eats in secret, is always dieting, has food rituals, or is very sensitive about eating habits
  • Person obsesses about weight or appearance
  • Dramatic weight changes may be present, but this is not necessary

It is very important to note that these symptoms are not all-inclusive. The truth is that many individuals who suffer from eating disorders are very talented at hiding their disorder. Sometimes, the eating disordered person is so good at hiding the symptoms that he or she is even in denial as well. It is very common for an eating disorder affected person to not even be aware that the food and weight issues are even present.

Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

MYTH: Men and boys do not have eating disorders.

FACT: Men and boys are estimated to make up 15 percent or more of patients with bulimia and anorexia and have even been estimated to count for up to 35 percent of binge eating sufferers. Many times, young men suffer from muscle dysmorphia, which is characterized by severe anxiety about being muscular and appearing physically stronger. This leads to problems with steroid use and excessive working out, sometimes to the point of illness.

MYTH: People with eating disorders are always very skinny.

FACT: Even individuals with anorexia come in every shape and size. On average, those with anorexia tend to be thinner than those with binge eating or bulimia, but that is not always the case. A person need not be very thin to still be missing on vital nutrients and suffering from starvation.

MYTH: Eating disorders only affect rich or vain people.

FACT: Eating disorders affect everyone—every race, age and socioeconomic status. In fact, most times eating disorders are not about the individual being vain or narcissistic; many who suffer from eating disorders express strong feelings of self-hatred and desire for more control over circumstances and anxiety.

MYTH: Eating disorders won’t hurt you—it can’t hurt to want to look better.

FACT: Eating disorders can quickly become deadly. An electrolyte imbalance caused by dehydration or starvation can cause death in as little as 24 hours. Damage caused by constant vomiting or laxative use can wear away the digestive system, literally opening up cysts that cause internal bleeding. Malnutrition can cause hair loss, organ failure and death.

Eating Disorder Help

If you are reading this, you might be concerned that either you or a loved one suffers from an eating disorder. If you would like to learn more about eating disorders or learn about how you can help treat an eating disorder, please call our toll free 24-hour helpline. We are available every day of the week and have trained counselors to help you find treatment, information and more. Call us today.