What is Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop. They might start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.

In severe cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and may even result in death if left untreated.

Those with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms. However, most include the severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or over-exercising.

Although eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, they’re most often reported in adolescents and young women. In fact, up to 13% of youth may experience at least one eating disorder by the age of 20.

Common types of eating disorders include:

  • Binge-eating is out-of-control eating. People with binge-eating disorders keep eating even after they are full. They often eat until they feel very uncomfortable. Afterward, they usually have feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. Eating too much too often can lead to weight gain and obesity. Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
  • Bulimia nervosa. People with bulimia nervosa also have periods of binge eating. But afterward, they purge, by making themselves throw up or using laxatives. They may also over-exercise or fast. People with bulimia nervosa may be slightly underweight, normal weight, or overweight.
  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa avoid food, severely restrict food, or eat very small quantities of only certain foods. They may see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. Anorexia nervosa is the least common of the three eating disorders, but it is often the most serious. It has the highest death rate of any mental disorder.

The risk of developing an eating disorder, includes:

  • Family history: Eating disorders are significantly more likely to occur in people who have parents or siblings who’ve had an eating disorder.
  • Other mental health disorders: People with an eating disorder often have a history of anxiety disorder, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Dieting and starvation: Dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Starvation affects the brain and influences mood changes, rigidity in thinking, anxiety, and reduction in appetite. There is strong evidence that many of the symptoms of an eating disorder are actually symptoms of starvation. Starvation and weight loss may change the way the brain works in vulnerable individuals, which may perpetuate restrictive eating behaviors and make it difficult to return to normal eating habits.
  • Stress: Whether it’s heading off to college, moving, landing a new job, or a family or relationship issue, change can bring stress, which may increase your risk of an eating disorder.

Therapies for Eating Disorder

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • CBT aims to identify the thought patterns and beliefs that contribute to your eating disorder.

    These could include thoughts or beliefs that are associated with things such as:

    • food
    • weight
    • body shape
    • appearance

    Once these thoughts and beliefs are identified, you’re then taught strategies to modify them and to help manage them.

Dialectal behavior therapy (DBT)

  • DBT focuses on managing difficult emotions. With DBT, you’ll learn skills to change the behaviors associated with your eating disorder.

    Some specific skills that DBT aims to build include:

    • interpersonal skills
    • emotional expression
    • flexibility and openness
    • coping with feelings of distress
    • encouraging mindfulness

    DBT has been studied in the treatment of binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)

IPT is a type of therapy that’s used to treat eating disorders like binge eating disorder or bulimia. In IPT, your eating disorder is explored in the context of social and interpersonal relationships.

Four different “problem areas” are used in IPT. These include:

  • Interpersonal deficits: This often includes feelings of isolation or a lack of close, fulfilling relationships. The relationships in question don’t have to be romantic, but can also be related to those with friends or family.
  • Role disputes: This often involves a difference in expectations between yourself and one or more important people in your life, such as parents, friends, or employers.
  • Role transitions: This is typically concerned with big life changes, such as being on your own for the first time, starting a new job, or being in a new relationship.
  • Grief: This can include feelings of loss due to the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.

Talk to our Eating Disorder-Informed Therapist

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