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Eating Disorders
Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions of unusual and irregular eating habits, severe distress about body weight and shape, and an obsessive focus on food. Typically, these disorders are serious mental health conditions that manifest through a series of unhealthy eating patterns and habits. They also give a false image of body weight and a distorted self-image.

The development of eating disorders is influenced by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors, although there may be more contributing factors. Genetics also play a role, as individuals with a family history of eating disorders are more susceptible. Biological factors include neurotransmitter imbalances and hormonal irregularities. Psychological factors encompass body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and perfectionism. Environmental factors, such as societal pressure for an ideal body image and exposure to trauma, contribute significantly.

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa 

This is a serious mental health condition where an individual imposes starvation on themself out of an intense fear of gaining weight, leading to extreme thinness. 

Clinical Features:

  • Significant Weight Loss: Individuals with anorexia nervosa deliberately maintain a body weight significantly below what is considered healthy for their age and height.
  • Fear of Weight Gain: An irrational fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when underweight, drives restrictive eating behaviours.
  • Distorted Body Image: An intense preoccupation with body weight, shape, and size, coupled with a distorted perception of one’s own body.
  • Restrictive Eating Patterns: Limiting food intake, avoiding specific food groups, and engaging in rituals around food preparation and consumption.

Potential Causes:

  • Genetic Factors: Anorexia nervosa tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition.
  • Psychological Factors: Factors such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, and body dissatisfaction contribute to the development of anorexia.
  • Sociocultural Influences: Societal pressures, cultural ideals, and media portrayals of thinness can exacerbate body image concerns.
  • Neurobiological Factors: Imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine may play a role in the development of anorexia.

Complications and health risks:

  • Malnutrition: Insufficient caloric intake leads to malnutrition, impacting organ function and overall health.
  • Cardiovascular Complications: Anorexia nervosa can lead to heart issues, such as irregular heartbeats and low blood pressure.
  • Bone Health: Osteoporosis and bone density loss are common in individuals with anorexia, increasing the risk of fractures.
  • Organ Damage: Multiple organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, and gastrointestinal tract, can be affected.

Treatment Options:

  • Medical Stabilisation: Hospitalisation may be necessary for severe cases to address immediate health risks.
  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy help address distorted thought patterns and behaviours.
  • Nutritional Rehabilitation: Working with registered dietitians to restore a healthy and balanced diet is a crucial aspect of recovery.
  • Medication: Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed to address co-occurring mental health conditions.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder that causes recurrent episodes of excessive food intake followed by compensatory behaviours such as vomiting, fasting, or excessive exercise.

Clinical Features:

  • Binge Eating Episodes: Individuals with Bulimia Nervosa engage in recurring episodes of consuming large amounts of food within a discrete period.
  • Compensatory Behaviours: To prevent weight gain, individuals employ compensatory behaviours like self-induced vomiting, laxative use, or excessive exercise.
  • Preoccupation with Body Shape and Weight: An intense fear of weight gain, coupled with a distorted body image, contributes to the disorder.
  • Lack of Control During Binge Episodes: A sense of loss of control during binge episodes, with eating continuing beyond the point of comfort.

Potential Causes:

  • Genetic Factors: A genetic predisposition may contribute to the development of Bulimia Nervosa.
  • Psychological Factors: Factors such as perfectionism, low self-esteem, and mood disorders can contribute to the onset of bulimic behaviors.
  • Cultural Influences: Societal emphasis on thinness and beauty standards may contribute to body dissatisfaction.
  • Traumatic Experiences: Traumatic life events, such as childhood abuse, may increase vulnerability to Bulimia Nervosa.

Health Consequences:

  • Electrolyte Imbalances: Frequent vomiting or laxative use can lead to electrolyte imbalances, affecting vital bodily functions.
  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Repeated purging behaviours can result in gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux and esophageal damage.
  • Dental Complications: Tooth decay and erosion are common due to exposure to stomach acids during vomiting.
  • Cardiovascular Complications: Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can lead to cardiovascular issues, including irregular heart rhythms.

Treatment Approaches:

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective in addressing distorted thoughts and behaviours related to body image and food.
  • Nutritional Counselling: Collaborating with registered dietitians to establish healthy eating patterns and address nutritional deficiencies.
  • Medication: Antidepressants may be prescribed to manage associated mood disorders and reduce binge-purge cycles.
  • Group Therapy: Participating in group therapy sessions to foster a supportive environment and share experiences with peers.

Binge-Eating Disorder 

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a significant mental health condition whereby there are recurring episodes of consuming large quantities of food while feeling a lack of control. Unlike bulimia nervosa, individuals with BED do not engage in compensatory behaviours like vomiting or excessive exercise. 

Clinical Features:

  • Recurrent Episodes of Binge Eating: Consuming an excessive amount of food in a discrete period, often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, or distress.
  • Lack of Control: A persistent feeling of inability to control eating during binge episodes.
  • Emotional Distress: Binge eating is often triggered by emotional distress, stress, or negative emotions.
  • Frequency of Episodes: Episodes occur, on average, at least once a week for three months.

Potential Causes:

  • Genetic Factors: A familial predisposition to binge-eating disorder suggests a genetic influence.
  • Psychological Factors: Mood disorders, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction contribute to the development and maintenance of BED.
  • Dieting and Restriction: Chronic dieting and restrictive eating patterns may lead to increased vulnerability to binge eating.
  • Trauma and Stress: Childhood trauma or significant life stressors can be linked to the onset of binge-eating episodes.

Health Implications:

  • Obesity: BED is associated with an increased risk of obesity due to the consumption of large quantities of food during binge episodes.
  • Metabolic Issues: Health complications such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome may arise due to the impact of excessive calorie intake.
  • Cardiovascular Risks: Elevated risks of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases are linked to obesity resulting from BED.
  • Psychological Distress: BED often coexists with anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Treatment Approaches:

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective in addressing distorted thought patterns and behaviours associated with binge eating.
  • Medication: Certain antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed to reduce the frequency of binge episodes.
  • Nutritional Counselling: Working with registered dietitians to establish regular and balanced eating patterns.
  • Support Groups: Group therapy and support networks can provide individuals with BED with a sense of community and understanding.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a feeding and eating disorder that causes a persistent disturbance in eating habits, leading to nutritional deficiencies, impaired psychosocial functioning, and substantial weight loss.

Clinical Features:

  • Limited Food Variety: Individuals with ARFID exhibit an extremely selective range of foods they are willing to eat, often avoiding entire food groups.
  • Avoidance of Certain Textures or Smells: Sensory aversions to certain textures, smells, or appearances of food can contribute to avoidance.
  • Lack of Interest in Eating: A diminished interest in eating, often stemming from a lack of appetite or sensory discomfort.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies: Due to limited food choices, individuals with ARFID may experience significant nutritional deficiencies.

Potential Causes:

  • Sensory Sensitivities: Heightened sensitivities to the sensory aspects of food, such as taste, smell, or texture, contribute to avoidance.
  • Traumatic Experiences: Negative experiences related to food, such as choking incidents or traumatic events, can trigger ARFID.
  • Anxiety or Fear of Negative Consequences: Fear of adverse consequences, such as vomiting or allergic reactions, may drive avoidance behaviours.
  • Developmental Factors: Early childhood feeding difficulties or delayed introduction to certain foods can influence ARFID development.

Impact on Health:

  • Nutritional Deficiencies: Limited food intake can lead to insufficient intake of essential nutrients, affecting physical health.
  • Weight Loss and Growth Impairment: In children, ARFID can lead to stunted growth and delayed development.
  • Psychosocial Consequences: Social isolation, anxiety, and impaired quality of life result from the challenges associated with ARFID.
  • Impact on Daily Functioning: Difficulties in daily activities, such as attending social events or sharing meals, contribute to functional impairment.

Therapeutic Approaches:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Addressing distorted thoughts and beliefs related to food and gradually expanding the range of acceptable foods.
  • Exposure Therapy: Gradual exposure to avoided foods to reduce anxiety and increase tolerance.
  • Nutritional Counselling: Collaborating with registered dietitians to ensure adequate nutrient intake through a balanced diet.
  • Family-Based Interventions: Involving families in treatment, particularly for children and adolescents, to create supportive meal environments.
Eating disorder

Source: Shop and enroll blog

General Treatment Approaches


   – Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective in challenging distorted thoughts and behaviours associated with eating disorders.

   – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) addresses emotional regulation and interpersonal skills.

Medical Intervention

   – Hospitalisation may be necessary for severe cases of anorexia with medical complications.

   – Medications, such as antidepressants or mood stabilisers, may complement psychotherapy.

Nutritional Counselling

   – Registered dietitians collaborate with individuals to establish healthy eating habits, normalize eating patterns, and address nutritional deficiencies.

Family-Based Treatment (FBT)

   – Especially effective for adolescents, FBT involves the family in the recovery process, shifting responsibility for meals back to the individual gradually.

Prevention and Awareness

This involves fostering a positive body image, promoting media literacy, and challenging societal pressures. Awareness campaigns, educational programs, and open conversations about mental health contribute to reducing stigma and encouraging early intervention.