Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders encompass psychological conditions leading to unhealthy eating patterns. Often, they stem from fixations on food, body weight, or physique. However, it is worth noting that it can be difficult to spot, and does not affect people with any particular body type more than others. 

If unchecked, they can escalate to life-threatening health issues. They are among the most fatal mental health conditions, followed by opioid addiction.

Symptoms vary widely among individuals. Typical signs include extreme food restriction, binge eating, and purging actions such as vomiting or excessive exercise.

It is noteworthy that certain demographics, including men and gender-nonconforming individuals, are increasingly diagnosed with these disorders. 

This prevalence can be attributed to societal pressures, stigmas, and specific challenges they face, which often deter them from acknowledging their condition or seeking timely intervention.

Eating Disorder Symptoms

Behavioural Symptoms

If someone you know exhibits the following behaviours, they might be grappling with an eating disorder:

To identify if someone else is exhibiting behavioural symptoms of an eating disorder, look out for these signs:

  • Disappearing food stocks.

  • Hidden food stashes in unusual spots.

  • Signs of forced vomiting.

Emotional Symptoms

Eating disorders often manifest in subtle emotional signs that can be easily overlooked. Those grappling with such conditions frequently exhibit the following:

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of eating disorders include:

Eating Disorders Causes and Risk Factors


Firstly, there is a genetic link. If a close family member has battled an eating disorder, the likelihood of another family member developing one increases.

Secondly, certain personality characteristics, such as a high degree of perfectionism (also seen in disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder), impulsivity, and heightened emotional sensitivity (eg anxiety, stress, depression), can predispose individuals to these conditions.

Moreover, recent scientific investigations highlight potential biological causes. Imbalances in serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters), which regulate mood and appetite, might be influential.

Risk Factors

Weight bullying

Weight bullying, a distressing experience many face, can profoundly affect one’s relationship with food. When individuals are ridiculed or shamed for their body size, it often leads to diminished self-worth. 

This emotional turmoil can urge a person to engage in unhealthy eating habits. Peer pressure and derogatory comments from trusted figures like teachers or parents intensify the internal struggle. 

As a result, some may resort to restrictive diets, binge eating, or other harmful behaviours. Moreover, these habits usually spiral into a full-blown eating disorder. 

Recognising the link between weight bullying and these disorders is crucial to fostering a supportive environment for everyone, regardless of size or appearance. 

Body Image

Negative body image, stemming from dissatisfaction with one’s appearance, can lead individuals to harmful behaviours. 

From childhood, societal influences shape our perceptions of ourselves. As we grow, comments and attitudes from those around us, especially when negative, become internalised. Over time, these external voices become our own, leading many to view their bodies through a critical lens.

Persistent negative self-talk can exert such a strong influence that individuals may find themselves resorting to self-destructive habits, including extreme dieting or excessive exercise. 

These behaviours represent extreme attempts to conform to perceived beauty standards or ideals. The intense desire to reduce body fat or attain a specific appearance can lead to severe harm over the long term.

By adolescence, a significant proportion of individuals already face these challenges. Studies indicate that over half of young girls and a third of boys are unhappy with their bodies.

This dissatisfaction is not limited to the younger generation. An alarming 60% of adult women and 40% of men report negative feelings about their appearance. This widespread sentiment, often called “normative discontent”, highlights the ubiquity of the issue.

Beauty Standards

Understanding the nuanced ways in which beauty standards impact various groups is crucial. Evidently, these standards, perpetuated by media and societal norms, contribute significantly to the prevalence of eating disorders.  

Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach, from promoting body positivity to providing culturally competent healthcare.  

By recognising the harmful effects of these unrealistic ideals and working towards a more inclusive understanding of beauty, we can hope to reduce the incidence of eating disorders and the pain they cause.

Female Ideals

The media’s portrayal of the ‘perfect’ female body has long been controversial. A glance at any fashion magazine showcases extremely thin women, with the average female fashion model’s body mass index (BMI) being a mere 16, significantly below the healthy range of 18.5 to 24.9. 

Digital enhancements further increase this unrealistic ideal – shaving inches off waists, hips, thighs, and face. 

Over the decades, the female beauty ideal has shifted towards an even thinner silhouette. For instance, the body size of Playboy models and Miss America winners decreased significantly from the 1950s to the 1990s. 

Today’s standards not only emphasise extreme thinness but also a specific bust size, creating an ideal that is nearly impossible for most women to achieve healthily. 

On the other hand, fatness is stringently linked to unhealthy bodies. This black-and-white thinking (assigning bodies to “good” and “bad”) is harmful for both the younger and older generation.

Male Ideals

While women face pressure to be ultra-thin, men grapple with different expectations. The ideal male physique is often portrayed as muscular and toned.

This leads many to engage in behaviours like overexercising or consuming muscle-building substances. However, when men engage in these behaviours, it is very rarely considered a problem because it is viewed as them being strong. 

These thoughts are deeply rooted in how society creates and enforces gender norms, expectations, and biases. 

This drive to achieve the ‘perfect’ body can lead to disorders like muscle dysmorphia, sometimes referred to as reverse anorexia. 

The societal pressure for men to conform to these standards can be just as damaging as the thin ideal imposed on women.

Gender-Nonconforming Ideals

challenges when it comes to body image and eating disorders. 

Research indicates that body dissatisfaction is a prevalent stressor among transgender individuals, increasing their risk for disordered eating. 

For instance, transgender boys/men and nonbinary youth assigned female at birth (AFAB) report higher rates of diagnosed and suspected eating disorders. 

The stress of conforming to societal gender norms, combined with the internal struggle of aligning one’s physical appearance with one’s gender identity, can exacerbate feelings of body dissatisfaction and lead to harmful behaviours.

Moreover, racial and ethnic backgrounds play a role in the prevalence and diagnosis of eating disorders among LGBTQ youth. 

Native/Indigenous and Multiracial LGBTQ youth report higher rates of diagnosed eating disorders. Similarly, Black LGBTQ youth suspect they have an eating disorder at four times the rate of being diagnosed.

Eating Disorder Types

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, often termed ‘anorexia’, predominantly emerges during adolescence or early adulthood. While it is more prevalent among women, men and gender-nonconforming people can also be affected.

At its core, anorexia is characterised by a distorted self-perception. Individuals often see themselves as overweight, even when they are critically underweight. This leads to severe calorie restriction and avoidance of certain foods. 

Key symptoms encompass:

  • Rigorous eating limitations
  • An overwhelming fear of weight gain, even when underweight
  • A distorted body image, with denial of the severity

However, it is pivotal to move beyond mere weight when diagnosing anorexia. The outdated reliance on body mass index (BMI) can be misleading. For instance, ‘atypical anorexia’ denotes significant weight loss, even if the individual is not categorically underweight.

Moreover, anorexia often intertwines with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Many people struggle with constant food-related thoughts, hoarding food, binge-watching food-related videos (eg mukbang videos) or even collecting recipes obsessively. 

Social eating can become challenging, and spontaneity may diminish due to a heightened need for environmental control.

Anorexia branches into two subtypes: the restricting type and the binge-eating and purging type. The former involves weight loss through dieting or excessive exercise, while the latter might include binge eating followed by purging activities, such as vomiting or over-exercising.

The repercussions of anorexia are profound, ranging from bone thinning and infertility to severe organ damage. 

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by cycles of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours. During these binges, individuals consume large quantities of food, often in secret, and experience a lack of control. This overindulgence frequently leads to feelings of guilt and shame.

Post-binge, they might engage in various actions to counteract potential weight gain. These range from fasting and excessive exercise – to more harmful methods like self-induced vomiting and misuse of laxatives or diuretics. 

Such behaviours, while intended to provide relief, often increase emotional distress such as anxiety.

It is crucial to note that, unlike anorexia, bulimia nervosa is not always evident. Those affected can span a range of body weights, from underweight to obese. 

However, if significantly underweight, the diagnosis leans towards anorexia nervosa binge-eating/purging type.

Subtle signs might hint at bulimia nervosa:

  • Regular bathroom visits post meals.
  • Persistent sore throat or dental issues from frequent vomiting.
  • Unexplained use of diet pills or diuretics.
  • Episodes of dizziness or fainting due to dehydration.
  • Excessive engagement in physical activities, especially after eating. 

The repercussions of bulimia nervosa can be severe, with risks like oesophageal tears or cardiac issues. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown promise in treating bulimia, focusing on normalising eating patterns and addressing underlying emotional triggers. Some also benefit from antidepressants or family therapy.

Binge Eating Disorder

BED, or binge eating disorder, is characterised by episodes where individuals consume vast amounts of food in a short span, coupled with feelings of lost control and distress. 

Distinctively, unlike bulimia nervosa, those with BED do not employ regular compensatory actions like vomiting or excessive exercise post-binge. 

BED is linked to severe health risks, from obesity to cardiovascular issues. Recognising the signs early can prevent long-term complications. 

The diagnostic criterion for BED includes consistent binges (minimum once weekly for three months). Additionally, people exhibit three or more of these behaviours:

  • Rapid consumption of food
  • Eating past the point of comfort
  • Consuming vast quantities without hunger
  • Isolating oneself during binge episodes due to embarrassment
  • Experiencing intense guilt or self-disgust post-binge

Cognitive behavioural psychotherapy, tailored for BED, is the most effective treatment. Interpersonal therapy and specific medications are also efficient in managing this disorder.

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED)

This classification addresses eating disturbances that, while causing significant distress and functional impairment, do not align with the specific criteria of more common disorders. 

An example is “atypical anorexia nervosa”. Individuals with this condition may experience substantial weight loss and demonstrate behaviours and concerns about weight or shape that align with anorexia nervosa. 

However, they do not meet the weight criteria for anorexia due to a higher baseline weight. It is imperative to recognise that the rapidity of weight loss, irrespective of initial weight, can precipitate serious medical complications. 

Thus, while OSFED might not fit traditional categories, its potential implications are profound and require attention and professional support.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) involves issues more than picky eating. Those affected might limit their diet based on food colour, texture, or smell, not just taste. 

Unlike anorexia or bulimia, ARFID is not about body image concerns. Instead, individuals might experience genuine fear around food, stemming from past negative experiences like choking or vomiting. Others might simply lack interest in eating altogether.

It is crucial to differentiate between a phase and a persistent issue. While ARFID can manifest at any age, it is predominantly observed in children. If not addressed, it can hinder growth due to inadequate nutrition, leading to severe health complications. 

Recognising the nuanced differences between ARFID and other eating disorders is the first step towards effective intervention and support.


Pica is a unique eating disorder where individuals consume non-food items lacking any nutritional benefit. Depending on age and accessibility, these might range from paper, soap, and chalk to metal, charcoal, or even pebbles. 

It is essential to note that while young children naturally explore objects with their mouths, Pica is distinct. It is not diagnosed in those under two years, as this behaviour is a standard developmental phase.

While pica can manifest at any life stage, it is predominantly observed during childhood. Moreover, it is not merely a phase or preference but is often linked with conditions like autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities. However, it can also emerge in typically developing children.

Consuming such items can lead to intestinal obstructions or ingesting harmful substances, like lead from paint chips. 

Addressing pica involves nutritional assessments and behavioural interventions. Therapists and doctors work together to guide individuals away from harmful ingestion and reinforce healthier choices.

Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder is characterised by voluntary regurgitation, re-chewing, and either re-swallowing or expelling of food post-consumption. 

While it can manifest at any life stage—from infancy to adulthood—it is essential to distinguish it from gastrointestinal issues or other eating disorders. 

For a definitive diagnosis, this behaviour should persist for at least a month and not be a symptom of another mental condition. 

However, if it coexists with disorders like intellectual disability, its severity should necessitate distinct clinical intervention. 

Eating Disorder Recovery

Navigating the path to recovery from an eating disorder can be complicated, but with the right support, it is entirely achievable. 

Two primary avenues of treatment are online psychotherapy and medication, both of which play a pivotal role in facilitating a holistic recovery.


Individual Therapy: This one-on-one approach allows individuals to explore deep into the root causes of their disorder. Moreover, personalised therapy fosters self-awareness and coping strategies.

Group Therapy: Sharing experiences with others can be therapeutic. It provides a platform for mutual support and understanding, often alleviating feelings of isolation.

Family Therapy: Eating disorders do not just affect the individual. Involving family can create a supportive environment. Family therapy addresses the unhealthy relationship that the person shares with food, explores any cultural and familial dynamics that may be contributing to the disorder, and promotes collective healing.


While not a standalone solution, medication can be an effective adjunct to therapy. It mainly benefits those with coexisting mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. 

Some commonly prescribed medications include antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilisers. Their role is to alleviate symptoms, making the therapeutic process more effective.

Integrated Approach

An integrated approach, combining both psychotherapy and medication, often yields the best results. 

This strategy addresses both the psychological and physiological aspects of the disorder. Regular medical monitoring ensures that any physical complications are promptly addressed, while nutritional counselling provides guidance on healthy eating habits.

Frequently Answered Questions

How to help someone with an eating disorder?

Supporting someone with an eating disorder requires a delicate balance of understanding and patience. Here are some ways to offer help:

  • Initiate a non-judgmental conversation. Listen actively, ensuring they feel validated and heard. Avoid offering solutions – sometimes, just being heard is therapeutic.
  • Gently suggest seeking advice from healthcare experts. Remember, the decision ultimately lies with them.
  • Regularly invite them for activities or catch-ups. Even if they decline, your gesture reinforces their importance in your life.
  • Celebrate their achievements, however small. Remind them of their qualities beyond the physical, reinforcing their intrinsic value.

Why do models have anorexia?

The fashion industry’s relentless pursuit of the ‘perfect’ figure has inadvertently placed undue pressure on models, leading many to develop eating disorders. 

While anorexia is widely recognised, it is just one facet of a broader issue. The underlying reasons are multifaceted: societal standards, industry expectations, and personal pressures converge, pushing models towards unhealthy eating habits.

Beauty standards in the fashion industry are not merely about achieving a certain size; it is about maintaining it. This constant scrutiny can lead to secretive behaviours, with some models resorting to extreme measures like excessive water intake (as a replacement for meals), which can be detrimental to health. Bulimia, though less discussed, is equally prevalent and poses its own set of health risks.

The industry’s emphasis on a singular body type does not just affect models; it sends a message to society about what’s deemed ‘beautiful’. 

It is crucial to understand the depth of this issue, as it is not just about fashion but about the well-being of individuals within the industry.

What are the social media effects on body image and eating disorders?

With its vast reach, social media, especially Instagram, has undeniably influenced our perception of beauty. As users are bombarded with images, many compare their bodies to often unrealistic standards. 

This constant exposure, especially to appearance-related content, has been linked to heightened body dissatisfaction and the onset of disordered eating behaviours. 

The readily available tools like Photoshop and filters further exacerbate the issue, presenting an idealised body image.

Yet, it is not all negative. Social media also offers a platform for body positivity. Engaging with body-positive content can foster self-acceptance and appreciation. 

Building a supportive online community can counteract the harmful effects. To harness the positive side, curating your social media feed is crucial. 

Unfollow accounts that reduce your self-worth and embrace those that uplift and promote diverse body images. Remember, it is about finding balance and using social media mindfully!

How to tell someone about your eating disorder?

Opening up about an eating disorder is a courageous step towards recovery. Here is an approach that can help you initiate this sensitive conversation:

  • Opt for a location where you feel at ease. Whether it is your bedroom, a quiet park, or around the dining table, the environment should make you comfortable.
  • Initiating such a conversation can be daunting. Consider sitting side-by-side or even walking together. This side-by-side approach can feel less confrontational. If face-to-face feels too challenging, penning a letter or using messaging platforms can also be effective.
  • Reflect on who in your life might be receptive and understanding. Avoid discussing with someone currently battling similar issues, as it might be triggering. If you are unsure about confiding in someone close, helplines are available.
  • Be prepared for inquiries and understand that they stem from concern. If overwhelmed, it is okay to request a pause in the conversation or choose not to answer their question. Remember, their reactions, even if emotional, are not your fault.
  • If the conversation becomes too intense, have an exit strategy. Express gratitude for their time and understanding, and if necessary, suggest revisiting the topic later.

Seeking therapy is always an option. A therapist or a professional counsellor can also facilitate this conversation with you and your loved ones. 

Having an expert control of the environment might help reduce the burden you might be facing and focus more on sharing your thoughts and feelings. 

If you struggle with eating disorders, remember that recovery is possible. 

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