Eating disorders are serious illnesses that cause disturbances in people’s eating patterns and are marked by excessive thoughts with body weight, shape, or size. There are three main types of eating disorders — anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, nearly 20 million women and men suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders are 10 times more common in young women, but eating disorders are being reported at an increasingly higher rate in men and older women.

Eating disorders, which typically develop during the teenage years or early adulthood, are treatable but can result in medical and health problems without intervention.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are three main types of eating disorders — anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa, or simply known as anorexia, is an eating disorder marked by abnormally low body weight characterized by a fear of gaining weight because of a distorted body image. Those diagnosed with anorexia weigh, on average, 85 percent of what is average for their age and height; although this 85 percent marker is not a criterion factor for diagnosing anorexia. Those with anorexia go to extreme measures to restrict calories, sometimes limiting their eating, using diet aids, laxatives, or enemas, as well as vomiting.

Those with anorexia may obsess with exercising to reduce weight. Additionally, binging – overeating or eating obsessively — and purging – using unhealthy ways to get rid of calories (vomiting, excessive exercising) — also are associated with anorexia, which is similar to bulimia, but those with anorexia maintain significantly low body weight.

Anorexia has less to do with actual weight and more to do with self-worth associated with body image. Those with anorexia struggle with shame, guilt, and depression, and may have trouble with social connection. Additionally, co-occurring diagnoses of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can develop because of an obsession with food patterns and rituals.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa, or simply known as bulimia, is associated with bingeing and purging behaviors — overeating and then trying to get rid of calories through vomiting, excessive exercising, or other restrictive diets.

As with anorexia, bulimia is an emotional illness that is connected to low self-esteem and poor self-image. Studies have shown that purging behavior provides a sense of self-control and reduction in anxiety, making it hard to treat. Additionally, research has suggested that purging is often learned through friends and that dieting is a precursor to the development of bulimia.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by overeating or consuming large amounts of food to the point of loss of control. Binge eating may contribute to weight gain and obesity and can cause feelings of shame, guilt, and disgust when eating urges can’t be control. Those who suffer from binge eating disorders turn to food to cope with feelings of low self-worth and can trigger depression and anxiety, causing a vicious cycle that indirectly contributes to the disorder.

Differences in the Three Main Eating Disorders

Anorexia
  • Use of extreme measures to control weight – restriction of calories — excessive exercising, laxatives, diet aid, limiting food consumption, vomiting
  • May co-occur with a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder connected to compulsive behaviors tied to food patterns, thoughts, or rituals.
  • Connected to feelings of low self-worth and distorted body image
Bulimia
  • Use of extreme measures to control weight – restriction of calories — excessive exercising, laxatives, diet aid, limiting food consumption, vomiting
  • Is not necessarily connected to low body weight
  • Connected to feelings of low self-worth and distorted body image
Binge Eating Disorder
  • Overeating or consuming large amounts of food in one sitting.
  • Feeling a loss of control to stop urges
  • Connected to feelings of guilt and shame regarding food consumption and can trigger depression and anxiety
  • The use of food to cope with depression and anxiety contributes to a cycle of overeating.

 

What Causes an Eating Disorder

While they are no definitive causes of eating disorders, several factors can contribute to the development of the illness, including:

Genetics – Studies have found that eating disorders are common in people whose first-degree relatives – parents, siblings – also have the illness. Additionally, children may learn behaviors connected to eating disorders from moms who struggle with eating issues, unwittingly teaching negative behaviors to their children, such as using food as a reward, modeling unusual eating patterns, or expressing concern about their own weight or their child’s weight.

Environmental – those who have experienced family dysfunction or witness alcohol or substance abuse in the family may turn to food to cope. Additionally, those whose caregivers or family members were overly critical of their weight or body were more at risk for an eating disorder.

Trauma – those who have survived sexual abuse or physical or emotional neglect are at a higher risk of eating disorders.

Society Pressures – Society and cultural pressures to be thin and feelings of low self-worth or inadequacy connected to societal preferences can contribute to eating disorders.

Substance abuse – those who are currently substance abusers or are withdrawing from drugs or alcohol are more prone to anxiety disorders. Additionally, those who experience anxiety may be more prone to turn to drugs or alcohol to lessen their symptoms.

Co-occurring conditions – those dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as obsessive-compulsive behaviors can be contributing factors to an eating disorder.

Do I Have an Eating Disorder?

While many people will diet or restrict calories at some point in their lives, it may be hard to identify definitive symptoms of an eating disorder.

A diagnosis of an eating disorder requires an evaluation and diagnosis by a licensed clinician such as a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. At Clarity Clinic, we specialize in eating disorder assessments and treatment for children, teens, and adults aimed at understanding the severity, length, and frequency of the symptoms, including ruling out a differential diagnosis, to determine the best treatment options.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Studies have found that cognitive behavior therapy has been effective in treating eating disorders. Cognitive-behavior therapy or CBT is a goal-oriented therapy that focuses on changing behaviors and thought patterns for those suffering from eating disorders. At Clarity Clinic, our therapists are trained in CBT interventions and strategies to help patients acknowledge and redirect distorted thought patterns about their weight and body image, as well as strengthen their view about themselves, to improve self-worth and self-esteem.

Our therapists take a multi-disciplinary approach, working in conjunction with the psychiatrist treating co-occurring disorders, as well as the client’s nutritionist and family to devise an individual treatment plan tailored to each client’s symptoms.

Family therapy is also recommended in the treatment of individuals struggling with eating disorders, particularly adolescents, considering family dynamics often contribute to the development and continuity of the disorder.

Living with Someone with An Eating Disorder

An eating disorder can take a huge emotional and physical toll on the individual struggling, but it can also cause depression and anxiety in family members who feel helpless in improving their loved one’s symptoms. Some suggestions to help your loved one may include:

  • Encourage them to seek professional help
  • Focus on strengths
  • Take the focus off food and weight
  • Reduce conflict at mealtime but discussing concerns separate from food settings
  • Seek family therapy or participate in a support group
  • Highlight characteristics of self outside of appearance (i.e. compliment on their kindness, sense of humor, thoughtfulness, etc.)