Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses defined by abnormal eating habits that can have a profoundly negative affect a person’s physical and psychological health.

People with eating disorders become obsessed with food and their body weight.  Whether the eating disorder manifests as eating too little, or too much, individuals with eating disorders use their preoccupation with food to create a sense of control over their lives, and to distract themselves from the painful emotions that are at the root of the condition.

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious, life-threatening eating disorder and psychological condition characterized by extreme weight loss, an intense fear of weight gain, and a distorted body image.  People struggling with Anorexia believe that they are overweight even when they are dangerously underweight. They severely restrict the amount of food they consume and are obsessive about monitoring their weight.  Anorexia has serious long-term health risks including digestive issues, bone loss, infertility, kidney and liver failure, brain damage, cardiac arrest, and death.  Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. As many as 10% of anorexics will die as a result of health problems or suicide within 10 years of developing the disorder.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is also a psychological eating disorder categorized by the person’s obsessive preoccupation with weight gain.  People with Bulimia binge on an unusually large amount of food in a short amount of time, then purge the excess calories by forced vomiting; excessive use of laxatives, enemas or diuretics; or extreme exercise and fasting. The cycle of binging and purging is typically done in secret, creating feelings of shame, guilt, and a lack of control. The long-term health risks associated with Bulimia Nervosa include severe dehydration, tooth decay and esophageal rupture from repeated vomiting, gastrointestinal problems, kidney problems, heart failure, and death.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder occurs when individuals lose control over their eating, obsessively consuming excessive quantities of food in a short period.  However, unlike Bulimia Nervosa, binge eaters don’t compensate for the extra calories by purging.  Instead of losing an unhealthy amount of weight, binge eaters typically gain a significant amount weight making them susceptible to obesity.  Binge eating also creates intense feelings of guilt, distress, and embarrassment that only perpetuates the problem. Binge Eating Disorder is currently the most common eating disorder in US, affecting millions of Americans, and leading to national obesity crisis.

Causes of an Eating Disorder

There are many biological, psychological and societal factors that can influence the development of an eating disorder. Individuals who have experienced trauma, or who struggle with low self-esteem, a negative body image, and perfectionism may be more susceptible.  How someone was raised, cultural pressure, peer influence, and professional or sport performance expectations, can also contribute to an eating disorder.

Eating disorders traditionally affect more women than men but this norm is changing as media influence and societal pressure challenge both women and men of all ages to conform to an ideal body type.

Individuals with eating disorders all experience serious emotional distress that must be treated. Eating disorders are a mental health condition that can have life-threatening results.

Treatment for an Eating Disorder

Because of complexities and severity of eating disorders, treating these conditions usually involves a combination of psychological and nutritional counseling, medical care, and psychiatric monitoring.  A successful treatment program will address both the mental health issues and the medical consequences of an eating disorder, as well as the cultural and societal influences that contribute to or maintain the condition.

Therapy is a fundamental part of eating disorder treatment.  Counseling and psychotherapy methods, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, and interpersonal therapy have all proven beneficial in the treatment of eating disorders. Support groups can also be an extremely valuable way to get support, share experiences, and connect with others who understand the challenges of living with an eating disorder.

Nutritional counseling also plays a vital role.  Monitoring weight restoration and stabilization, teaching eating strategies and healthy eating habits, and designing meal plans are all important aspects of a successful recovery.

With severe cases eating disorders, hospitalization or supervised in-patient care may be necessary.


If the way you think about food is controlling your life, or if concerns about your weight are affecting your health, talk to someone who can help.

Contact the Canadian Mental Health Association to learn more about support and resources in your area.

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