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Understanding Eating Disorders

Updated on October 1, 2016
Kathleen Odenthal profile image

Kathleen is a 29 year old mom who struggled with anorexia for decades. She is now in recovery & hopes to educate others about this disease.

Scales are for Fishes, Not People

Life Without Ed is one of my favorite books on this subject. Written by a woman who is in recovery herself, Jenni's unique look at the struggles of coming to te

Eating Disorders versus Disorder Eating

There is a big difference between having disordered eating patterns and having a full-fledge eating disorder, however they can easily be mistaken for each other. Disordered eating could be a result of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder, stress, or a number of other factors.

Eating disorders are all-consuming worlds of their own where a person transforms weight and eating into a psychological problem with a constant pre-occupation with everything that has to do with food.

An estimated 60% of women in the United States exhibit disordered eating patterns in one or another, while an estimated 10% of women suffer from eating disorders.

Examples of disorder eating patterns include:

  • cutting out a food group to cut calories
  • eating to manage one's emotions
  • eating foods in a certain order
  • combining strange foods
  • avoiding eating in public
  • overusing condiments
  • cutting up food excessively
  • eating at certain times or obsessing over the time you can or cannot eat

The more behaviors a person with disordered eating exhibits, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder at some point in time.

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders

Precise figures for the number of people in the United States with eating disorders are hard to come by, because it is such a secretive disease. Typically, only those with severe eating disorders are ever diagnosed by a doctor. Rough estimates guess that at least 10 million people in the United States are currently suffering from some type of eating disorder.

This number includes men and women of all shapes and sizes, people of all races, all religions and all classes. Eating disorders don't discriminate, they can happen to anyone. When people hear the term eating disorder, they typically think of a young woman, typically caucasian.

However eating disorders are growing in popularity among men, minorities and older women. A minimum of one million men are suffering from an eating disorder in the United States, and this number is predicted to be a gross underestimate due to the stigma surrounding eating disorders.

According to statistics, at least 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder- with rates extremely lower in nonindustrialized cultures - leading experts to think that culture has a huge impact on the development of these illnesses.

No Body is Perfect

Classifying Eating Disorders

Although there are a number of different diagnoses for eating disorders, there are three certain disorders that are the most common - anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an intense fear of fat, a preoccupation with weight and food, and negative self image. Symptoms and signs of anorexia include:


  • failure to maintain a healthy weight
  • obsession with food, calories and weight loss
  • a compulsion to exercise for long periods of time, or at odd hours
  • isolation
  • low self esteem and a warped self image
  • fear of eating in front of other people

A person with anorexia nervosa is someone who fears being out of control to such a great extent, that they turn their focus towards food, and go to desperate measures to control their weight - including starving themselves to cause weight loss. It estimated that 10% of people in the U.S. suffer from anorexia nervosa- the most fatal eating disorder, killing 1 in 10 people diagnosed with the disease.

The next eating disorder is bulimia nervosa- a disease where the feeling of having no control causes dangerous binge-purge cycles for the person suffering. Although a secretive disease, bulimia nervosa can be easier to spot than anorexia. Signs and symptoms of bulimia include:

  • eating large amounts in one sitting (bingeing)
  • going to the bathroom after a meal
  • exercising immediately after eating
  • self induced vomitting to purge ones body of unwanted food
  • over-exercising
  • laxative use and/or abuse

It is estimated that 5-10% of women in the United States suffer from bulimia nervosa. And although anorexia has a higher mortality rate, deaths from bulimia nervosa are more unpredicatable.

The last eating disorder I am going to cover is binge eating disorder, a disease that strikes an estimated 10% of people in the United States, 40% of which are male. BED (binge eating disorder) shares some of the same characteristics with bulimia nervosa, however people with BED don't typically engage in purging behaviors. People struggling with binge eating disorder are often stuck in a cycle of bingeing, then dieting, bingeing, then dieting - never able to find a healthy middle ground.

At the Core - Eating Disorders Come from a Lack of Control

Loved ones of those with an eating disorder often wonder "why can't they just eat?" To them, the solution is simple, but in reality, eating disorders are much m

What's Behind an Eating Disorder

Eating disorder symptoms are dramatic, but the real drama lies beneath the surface of the symptoms, in the minds and the hearts of those who suffer. The painful behaviors that eating disordered people suffer with pale in comparison to the painful self ridicule that goes on in the mind of the sufferer.

Feeling lost, misunderstood, and out of control, those with eating disorders focus on the only thing in life that seems controlable - food. Nobody develops an eating disorder for the fun of it. If you have developed an eating disorder, it is because something in your life isn't working right. You have turned to your eating disorder to help you, despite the price your body must pay.

The more you rely on your eating disorder, the more you view it as a solution for your problems- which makes it easy to get lost in the disease. This is why early intervention is crucial in helping sufferers recover from these types of illnesses.

The Damage Eating Disorders Do

Eating disorders destroy the body.

Self-starvation causes the muscles to deteriorate, and eventually destroys the body's organs, one at a time. This can lead to a heart attack, and even death. This is why anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Bulimia is also extremely grueling on the body. Self induced purging causes electrolyte imbalances which damage the heart. Random heart attacks have been known to happen to people who purge once in a blue moon, as well as those who engage in purging behaviors a number of times each day.

Not only do eating disorders damage the body of the person suffering, they also damage the life of the sufferer as well. Eating disorders ruin relationships, cause dysfunction within the family, and interfere with a person's ability to focus.

The Rise of Eating Disorders

Before 1960, few people knew what anorexia nervosa was, and most had never even heard of the diagnosis. By the end of the decade however, eating disorders were claiming the lives of countless men and women.

At the same time, weight and eating preoccupations began increasing in the general population as a result of changes in the "ideal" body as shown through the media. Between the early 1970s and the dawning of the new millennium the number of women reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies went from below 50% to close to 90%.

Over the last 40 years, the ideal look has come to mean, above all else, being thin and free of body fat. In fact, for women, it has meant to become thinner and thinner. 45 years ago, models were on average, 8% thinner than the average woman. Today, they are 25% thinner than the average woman.

Inside the Head of a Person with an Eating Disorder

Goodbye Ed, Hello Me is the follow up story to Life Without Ed. In this book, Jenni takes you into her life after recovery. This book helped me realize that rec

The Process of Recovering from an Eating Disorder

Those with eating disorders need to realize one thing - that recovery is always option. Trust me, I know. As someone who has struggled for most of my life with anorexia nervosa, I know how hard it can be to find a light at the end of the tunnel. The longer someone struggles with an eating disorder, the more embedded the disease becomes in the psyche of the person. It becomes their identity, and the idea of giving up the eating disorder can feel like turning your back on your best friend.

Eating disorders attack the mind, the body and the spirit, and because of this, they require treatment that deals with all three of these components. Eating disorders are not lifetime sentences, full recovery is possible, regardless of how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen.

Recovering from an eating disorder is not easy. It often involves hospitalization, to help the person recover physically from the damage they have caused on their bodies. It involves therapy to help you realize what is at the root of the disorder, and to help you develop new, healthy coping mechanisms that don't involve food. It can also involve psychiatric treatment and medication to help you recover from depression and anxiety that often come along with an eating disorder.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, get help immediately. The sooner you intervene, the better chance you have at fully recovering from your eating disorder.

If you are reading this and struggling with an eating disorder, don't think that you are the exception. Don't ever tell yourself that recovery is just not an option for you, because I can promise you that it is, and that a better life awaits you once you do.

When I was 18 years old, I was told that I would never recover. I was told by my own psychiatrist that recovery just wasn't an option for me. Although I still struggle, I am lightyears from where I was ten years ago.

Recovery is always an option, as long as you believe that you deserve it.

Eating Disorder Poll

Do you know someone who is or may be suffering from an eating disorder?

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Emerging Developments in Treating Eating Disorders

New treatments are continually emerging when it comes to treating eating disorders. Over the last few decades, new forms of treatment have been discovered that help those suffering work on reducing their symptoms without having to reflect on their meaning. These treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), and Thought Field Therapy (TFT).

These methods can help someone with an eating disorder move away from unhealthy behaviors before having to face the demons that cause the behaviors. Once the person regains a clear mind, they are better able to tackle the root causes of their illness.

© 2014 Kathleen Odenthal Romano

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    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Kathleen, you are very brave for admitting you suffered from an eating disorder. This article is very informative and well presented. I don't know anyone with an eating disorder, but I know there are ton of people out there who will benefit from this very candid expose.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very comprehensive hub on the subject of eating disorders Kathleen. Very well written. Voted up.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      An excellent look at the topic. Up, Useful, and Interesting.