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Thursday, April 9, 2015

SMART Youth Answers: What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders (ED) are defined as mental conditions that cause you to have an unhealthy relationship with food and your body image. A common misconception about eating disorders is that it’s simply someone who feels they are overweight and stops eating to lose weight. It is much more complex than that. It can range from someone restricting their diet or only eating a specific food, throwing up their food (called purging) or excessively exercising to get rid of calories, or eating excessively. The psychological reasons people develop eating disorders is also complex. Reasons can include feeling like one has a sense of control over their lives, or using food as an unhealthy coping method.

Types of ED

The three most known types of eating disorders are:
  • Anorexia Nervosa: This eating disorder is characterized “an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight.” Those with anorexia control their caloric intake in a variety of ways, including restricting the amount of food they eat, vomiting after they eat, misusing laxatives, or excessively exercising. This control is equated with self-control, which is then equated with self-worth.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: This eating disorder describes people who typically eat excessively large amounts of food (binging), and then attempt to get rid of the extra calories by either vomiting and laxatives (purging bulimia) or fasting and excessive exercise (nonpurging bulimia). Although there are many similarities in definition between anorexia and bulimia, people with anorexia most times are severely underweight, while those with bulimia can appear average weight or overweight.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder: This is when people eat excessively large amounts of food over a period of time, without the attempt to get with of the extra calories through purging. These binges can be accompanied with feelings of disgust, shame, guilt, or depression. Although many people with binge-eating disorder may be overweight/obese, some may be average weight.


On the surface, eating disorders may seem only about food and weight, but it goes deeper than that. Eating disorders often stem from using food to cope with feelings that a person may feel they cannot handle. This can include low self-esteem, anger, loneliness, an underlying mental health disorders, a history of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), troubled personal relationships, stress, etc.

Many people also point to the media showing White/Western ideas of beauty as the ideal beauty standard as a root for eating disorders. These ideals include over-valuing thinness for women, muscularity for men, and the idea that we must always work on achieving the “perfect” body. These body values may differ based on race/ethnicity and sexual orientation as well. Our obsessions with dieting in the United States and similar countries leads to a culture that values physical appearance above any other quality. The emotions that come with not feeling good enough or being ridiculed for not having a certain body type can lead to eating disorders as well.


Typically, we associate eating disorders with women in their teens or early 20’s. Although young women are more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders, men are also affected and can have eating disorders, too. Beauty standards tell women to be thin, while they often tell men to be muscular. This means that eating disorders can look very different between men and women; and because we are more aware of the warning signs for women, men are less likely to be diagnosed.

People who are in occupations or hobbies that maintain a high level of expectation to be a certain way, such as athletes, dancers, models, etc. are also at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.  These activities often stress dieting and exercise to maintain a certain physique, and this type of pressure could be overwhelming for some.

In the US, 50% of Americans know at least one person who as an eating disorder. If you think that a friend is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, there are ways to help. Provide encouragement and support. Offer to help your loved one find a qualified doctor or mental health provider and make an appointment. You might even offer to go along. There are also resources available if you think you may have an eating disorder.


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