An Introduction to Eating Disorders


In the image, conscious & health driven society which we live in today, eating disorders have become a commoner entity of our fast-paced lives. There exists a held notion that eating disorders are just a lifestyle choice, when in fact they are far more serious and often fatal disorders that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors. Obsessions with body weight, shape and food may also be a sign pointing to an eating disorder.

Before we delve into the subject let us first debunk a few myths we have all probably heard of when we hear the words, “Eating disorders”.

  1. Eating Disorders do not discriminate, they affect males and females, young and old.
  2. A person’s body size is not enough to determine whether they have an eating disorder.
  3. Both genetic as well as environmental factors influence eating disorders.
  4. Eating disorders are serious biologically-influenced mental illnesses, not just passing fads.
  5. Complete recovery is possible.

Risk Factors:

  • Usually appear during the teenage years but may also develop during childhood or later in adult life.
  • Affect both genders, but 2.5 times more common in women.
  • Research suggests interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.
  • Researchers have also found a correlation between eating disorders & difference in patterns of brain activity.

In this article, we will discuss the three most common eating disorders which have plagued our society.

Anorexia nervosa:

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

Some clinical features include:

  • Extremely restricted hypo-caloric diets
  • Extreme thinness
  • A relentless pursuit of being thin & unwillingness to maintain a normal healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Low self-esteem

Long term complications include:

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry yellowish skin
  • Severe constipation
  • Damage to heart & brain
  • Fatigue
  • Infertility

Bulimia nervosa

People suffering with bulimia nervosa have recurrent and frequent episodes of binge eating large amount of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. This is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, retching, excessive use of laxatives, purgatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or relatively normal weight, making it tougher to diagnose.

Some clinical features include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth

Long term complications include:

  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal irritation from the abuse of laxatives
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals) which can lead to heart attack as well as stroke

Binge-eating disorder

People suffering from binge-eating disorder, lose control over their eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, & fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese.

Some clinical features include:

  • Eating large amounts of food in a specific amount of time
  • Eating even after feeling full or not hungry
  • Eating fast during binge episodes
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Feeling ashamed, or guilty about eating
  • Always dieting, without any weight loss

Long term complications include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Blood pressure & heart attacks

Treatments and Therapies

Adequate nutritional support, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the foundation of treatment. Treatments are tailored to individual needs and may include one or more of the following:

  • Individual, group, family therapy
  • Medical care and monitoring
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Medications

Psychological Support:

Psychological support such as a family-based therapy where parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa assume responsibility for feeding their child, appear to be very effective in helping people gain weight and improve eating habits & moods.

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


Research also suggests that psychological drugs like anti-depressants, anti-psychotics or mood stabilizers are helpful for treating eating disorders and other co-occurring illnesses such as anxiety or depression.


Author credits –  Garima Mishra