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What is an Eating Disorder?

Behaviour, Depression, Digestion, Weight loss, Mental Health | August 15, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

behaviour, mental health, weight loss

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious mental illness. It is characterized by eating, exercise and body weight or shape which becomes an unhealthy preoccupation for an individual. It is currently estimated that one million Australians have an eating disorder, and unfortunately this number is increasing. The Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes the following eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa often see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. They typically weigh themselves repeatedly, severely restrict the amount of food they eat, and eat very small quantities of only certain foods. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. While many young women and men with this disorder die from complications associated with starvation, others die of suicide. In women, suicide is much more common in those with anorexia than with most other mental disorders.

Symptoms include

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food. These episodes are followed by feelings of loss of control over what has been ingested and then feelings of guilt follow. These episodes encourage behavior that compensates for the overeating and result in self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or diuretics, fasting for extensive periods and then excessive exercise. 

Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or relatively normal weight.

Symptoms include

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat caused by regular vomiting
  • Worn tooth enamel, sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance which can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge Eating disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by regular episodes of binge eating which will regularly occur weekly or fortnightly.  Large quantities of food are rapidly eaten in a short period of time and leave a person feeling out of control and unable to stop themselves from eating. This is often linked with high levels of distress.

Unlike bulimia nervosa, a person with binge eating disorder will not use compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or over-exercising after binge eating. Therefore many people with binge eating disorder are overweight or obese.

Symptoms include

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in one sitting
  • Eating regardless of being hungry or full
  • Eating extremely fast during binge episodes
  • Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating

Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder

According to the Mental Health Criteria this category applies to behaviors that cause clinically significant distress and or impairment of functioning, but do not meet the full criteria of any of the Feeding or Eating Disorder criteria. This category may be used by clinicians where a clinician chooses not to specify why criteria are not met, including presentations where there may be insufficient information to make a more specific diagnosis.

Symptoms include

  • Preoccupation with eating, food, body shape and weight
  • Extreme body dissatisfaction
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of shame, self-loathing or guilt
  • Fainting and dizziness as a result of dehydration
  • Dieting behavior (fasting, counting calories, avoiding certain food groups such as fats)

Possible Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. They frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during early childhood or later in adult life. These disorders affect both genders, although rates among women are two and a half times higher than in men. In addition, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and loneliness, as well as problematic family and personal relationships, may also contribute to the development of eating disorders.

eating disorders Once the pattern has started, eating disorders may become self-perpetuating.

Dieting, bingeing and purging help some people to cope with painful emotions and to feel as though they have a sense of control of their lives. 

However, at the same time, these behaviors undermine physical health, self-esteem and a sense of competence and control.

In anorexia nervosa, starvation frequently contributes to a lack of flexible thinking, which may make change difficult. In almost all cases of eating disorders the individual will possess negative core beliefs about themselves that can trigger and/or maintain an eating disorder.

Treatments for Eating Disorders

Due to the severity and many varying complexities of eating disorders, a comprehensive and professional team specializing in eating disorders is essential in establishing healing and recovery. This team often consist of medical doctors, nutritionists, and psychologists or psychiatrists.

Adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the main areas of focus for treatment.  Treatment plans are utilized in addressing the many concerns a patient may be facing in the restoration of their health and well-being and are often tailored to meet individual needs. These treatment plans may include one or more of the following:

Nutritional counseling. Getting a patient to understand about nutrition and the human body can often change a person’s way of thinking when it comes to seeing food as the enemy.

Medications. Evidence suggests that medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may be helpful for treating eating disorders and other co-occurring illnesses such as anxiety or depression.

Psychotherapies. To reduce or eliminate binge-eating and purging behaviors, people may undergo cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is another type of psychotherapy that helps a person learn how to identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns and recognize and change inaccurate beliefs.

eating disorders group therapyIndividual, group, or family psychotherapy. Different forms of psychotherapy, such as individual, family, or group, can be helpful in addressing the underlying causes of eating disorders. Therapy is a fundamental piece of treatment because it affords an individual in recovery the opportunity to address and heal from traumatic life events and learn healthier coping skills and methods for expressing emotions, communicating and maintaining healthy relationships.

Medical care and monitoring. The highest concern in the treatment of eating disorders is addressing any health issues that may have been a consequence of eating disorder behaviors.

Taking the first steps towards treatment can be extremely challenging. A person with an eating disorder may feel stressed, nervous, anxious, embarrassed, ashamed or scared as they begin treatment. Some patients may be in denial about their problem, whilst others may feel like they have their disorder under control, even when they don’t, and for others, getting help may be the only option remaining if they know that death is inevitable if changes are not made accordingly.  Australia’s best online discount chemist


Osiecki, H. (2004). The Nutrient Bible. 6th ed. BioConcepts Publishing.

Osiecki, H. (2001). The Physician’s Handbook of Clinical Nutrition. 6th ed. Queensland:BioConcepts Publishing.

Balch JF, Balch PA. (2000). Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

 Trickey, R. 2003. Woman, Hormones and the Mestrual Cycle. NSW: Allen and Unwin

Eating Disorders: Core Interventions in the Treatment and Management of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders. NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 9: National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK).Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society (UK); 2004.

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