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Eating disorders involve disturbances in eating behaviors. People with disordered eating may have an unrealistic body image. They judge their worth by their distorted perception of body shape or weight. They have trouble seeing the positive qualities others see in them.
Types of Eating Disorders
- Anorexia nervosa, where an individual refuses to maintain a normal body weight and weighs less than 85 percent of what is appropriate for the person’s age and height
- Bulimia nervosa, where an individual binges on large quantities of food then vomits or uses laxatives to purge them
- Binge eating, where an individual eats uncontrolled quantities of food without purging
Many individuals with disordered eating also suffer from anxiety or depression.
Causes of Eating Disorders
The origins of these disorders are complex. Causes usually involve an interaction of socio-cultural, family-related, and individual factors.
Social and Cultural: Disordered eating occurs most often in societies where food is abundant, and thinness is highly associated with attractiveness and personal success. In this context, many individuals feel compelled to diet. For approximately 35 percent of dieters, dieting spirals out of control.
Family-Related Causes: Some individuals may be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder because of family history. Having a biological relative with disordered eating increases an individual's risk. Subtle biochemical contributors that are genetically passed along in families can predispose an individual to developing eating problems.
Other families may value thinness or physical fitness or healthy eating to such an extreme degree that they unwittingly set the stage for a child's developing disordered eating. Disordered eating is also more common in families whose members have substance abuse problems. Serious problems such as sexual abuse may also exist.
Individual psychological characteristics also play a role in making some individuals more likely to develop disordered eating. One involves what psychologists term “internality” and “externality.” Internality means that the individual is more likely to value the opinions of others rather than his or her own. Therefore, he or she may be more influenced by societal values, hence more vulnerable to preoccupation with body size and shape.
Another psychological characteristic associated with disordered eating involves perfectionism and mental rigidity. People who strive for perfection and tend to perceive the world in black and white terms are also vulnerable to disordered eating.
No single contributing cause creates disordered eating, but in some combination, they often set the stage.
Common Aspects of All Eating Disorders
Most people with eating disorders feel an inadequate sense of control in other areas of their lives. A false and misleading sense of control based on food intake and behaviors such as purging and/or compulsive exercise develops.
Secondly, most do not cope with their feelings very well, and the eating disorder becomes a way to cope.
Disordered Eating and College Women
Disordered eating typically begins in adolescence or early adult life. The academic and social stress of college life may trigger the onset of an eating disorder in a vulnerable individual or may worsen an already existing disorder. Many college women do not meet all the criteria for an eating disorder but still have serious eating problems. Up to one-third of college women try to control weight using diet pills or laxatives, restricting food, and exercising to an unhealthy degree.
Signs of Disordered Eating
While there are many individual exceptions to what follows, many clinicians report that the people with whom they work often exhibit the following characteristics:
- Preoccupation with food and calories
- Strict avoidance of high calorie or high fat foods
- Avoidance of social occasions that involve eating
- Mood or self-esteem affected by slight variations in weight
- Wanting to be alone because of "feeling fat"
- Becoming anxious or irritable when exercise or eating routines are disrupted
- Feeling guilty about eating
- Eating in secret or lying about eating
- Excessively rigid or perfectionistic thinking
Treating an Eating Disorder
Treatment may involve a physician, a nutritionist, and group and/or individual therapy.
The physician can identify and treat any of the physical problems resulting from an eating disorder and, in the case of an underweight individual, monitor safe weight gain.
Individuals with disordered eating have trouble knowing when they are hungry and what they need to eat to be healthy. The nutritionist can help with this.
The therapist can identify underlying psychological stress and help the individual find healthier means of coping with problems.
Disordered Eating in Men
Men experience disordered eating, too. In fact, they make up 40 percent of those with binge eating disorder. Increasingly, more men are also engaging in excessive exercise.
How to Help a Friend
Be a good role model in your attitudes about food, body image, and weight-related concerns.
Do and say what you can to support and encourage self-esteem and self-respect in personal, social, athletic, and intellectual endeavors.
Learn what you can about disordered eating.
Talk openly and honestly about your concerns. Avoiding them will not help.
How to Help Yourself
Become aware each day of what your body does, as the instrument of your life, not just an ornament for others.
Do something that will let you enjoy your body, for example, stretch, dance, walk, or sing.
Describe 10 positive things about yourself without mentioning your appearance.
Do not let your weight or shape keep you from doing things you enjoy.
Decide what you would rather do with the time you spend criticizing your body.
The Overcoming Bulimia Workbook by McCabe, McFarlane and Olmstead
The Body Image Workbook by Thomas Case
Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer
Bulimia: A Guide for Family and Friends by Roberta Sherman and Ron Thompson