What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a profound psychological malady where someone obsesses over food and body image as a way of coping and gaining some control in life. Emotionally consuming, underlying causes go far beyond preoccupation with food and body, often stemming from family dynamics, self-esteem issues, struggles with uncomfortable feelings (fear, anger, shame, self-doubt, resentment, jealousy, etc.), conflicts around growing up/adulthood, intimacy, as well as a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and other trauma.

Eating disorders have serious impact on physical and psychological well-being and have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. However, most people who recover and develop normal eating patterns show substantial psychological improvement.

Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, as well as other disordered eating, are characterized by persistent, extreme food behaviors and thought processes, and associated with significant emotional, physical, and interpersonal distress.

Anorexia Nervosa: refusal to maintain minimally normal body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, obsession with thinness, food and dieting, amenorrhea (loss of at least 3 consecutive menstrual cycles) in females. Symptoms are often coupled with hyperactivity, compulsive exercise, extreme moodiness, social isolation, feelings of insecurity, loneliness, inadequacy, and helplessness. Anorexia may include episodes of binge eating/purging (e.g. self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas).

Bulimia Nervosa: pattern of eating, binge eating (frequent unconrollable overeating of large quantities of food in a short period of time, often in secrecacy, or persistent "grazing" from food to food), followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretics, fasting, or exercise. Symptoms include disturbed perception of body shape/weight, and feeling depressed and guilty after binging/purging.

Binge Eating/Compulsive Overeating: frequent unconrollable overeating of large quantities of food in a short period of time, or persistent "grazing" from food to food, often unrelated to physical hunger. Eating episodes are commonly followed by stomach pain, sleepiness, feeling uncomfortably full, intense guilt, shame, depressed mood, negative thoughts and isolation. Food becomes the primary mood regulator and a substitute for feelings. Sufferers may also consider episodic dieting as a solution to their [food and life] problems.

Likewise, eating disorders can cause chronic medical problems: loss of or irregular menses; hormonal, reproductive, and endocrine problems; bone density loss, osteoporosis and osteopenia; mitral valve prolapse and cardiac problems; sodium and potassium deficiencies; kidney failure; dehydration and other fluid and electrolyte imbalances; gastrointestinal disorders; tooth decay; diabetes, hypertension, and edema linked to excessive weight gain from binge eating/compulsive overeating.

Nonetheless, an eating disorder rarely devours a person's entire true self, and while it is often progressive, recovery is progressive as well.