What Does it Mean to Have an Eating Disorder?
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What Does it Mean to Have an Eating Disorder?



Roughly 9 percent of the population deals with eating disorders. That may seem like a small number, but it still works out to roughly 28.8 million Americans.


Many people struggle with eating disorders or know someone who struggles. In either case, it can be hard to know where to turn for help or accurate information.


For those who are feeling uncertain, some of the most common questions about eating disorders are answered below.



What Is the Difference Between a Diet and an Eating Disorder?


It’s not always easy to tell when someone is simply on a diet and committed to sticking to it and when they’ve developed an eating disorder. Also, part of this confusion stems from the fact that an eating disorder can often start with someone going on a diet (typically because they want to lose weight).


According to the American Psychological Association, an eating disorder is defined as a “pathological disturbance” of a person’s behaviors and attitudes related to food. But, there’s more to it than simply wanting to shed a few pounds or eat more fruits and vegetables.


For those who are struggling to tell whether they’re simply dieting or if they’ve drifted into eating disorder therapy, working with a therapist can be invaluable. Therapists are trained to recognize the signs of eating disorders. Thus, they can help their clients determine whether or not they’ve developed one.


Is an Eating Disorder a Good Way to Lose Weight?


Many people, especially children, teens, and those who fall into the young adult category, believe that adopting disordered eating habits (restricting food, obsessively counting calories, purging after eating, etc.) is the key to helping them lose weight and achieve the figure they’ve always wanted.


These beliefs are also reinforced by a lot of celebrities and fitness influencers on social media, who often tout disordered eating practices as being perfectly normal and healthy.


In reality, an eating disorder is not a good way to lose weight. Eating disorders can have serious, long-term ramifications for a person’s health and self confidence.


As the National Eating Disorder Association points out, eating disorders can affect the cardiovascular system and put excessive stress on the heart. They can cause gastrointestinal issues, hormonal issues, and neurological issues, too. Therefore, work with a medical expert if you have an eating disorder.




How Do You Know if You Are Anorexic?


Anorexia nervosa (or simply anorexia) is a type of eating disorder that involves severely restricting food in an effort to lose weight and control one’s body size.


People with anorexia nervosa are often very thin or underweight. However, someone can still be “average-sized” or overweight and struggle with this disorder.


The following are some of the most common signs and symptoms associated with anorexia:

  • Being preoccupied with food, calorie counts, macronutrient counts, etc.
  • Frequently skipping meals
  • Denying hunger or making excuses to avoid eating
  • Eating only “safe” foods that are low calories, carbs, fat, etc.
  • Adopting food rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or chewing and spitting food out
  • Lying about how much food one has eaten



These kinds of behaviors can contribute to physical symptoms of anorexia, such as rapid, dramatic weight loss, fatigue, low blood pressure, dizziness, and digestive issues.




What Is Binging and Purging and Why Do People Do It?


Another common eating disorder is known as bulimia nervosa (or simply bulimia).


Bulimia is characterized by episodes of binging (eating large amounts of food in one sitting) followed by purging. Purging can involve self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives, or exercising excessively to burn off the calories eaten.


People who get trapped in the binging and purging cycle often do so because they struggle with body dysmorphia and feel a strong need to control their food intake, weight, and body size.


They may also struggle with a lack of control in general. Some people feel that eating a large amount of food and then purging is the only way to feel that they’re in charge of their lives.


Bulimia is different from rumination disorder. Rumination disorder is characterized by involuntary regurgitation of food. Bulimia, on the other hand, involves intentional regurgitation or other forms of purging.




What Is Orthorexia?


Orthorexia nervosa (or simply orthorexia) is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with being healthy and “clean” eating. People with orthorexia may experience an intense fear of gaining weight, but they also worry about eating foods or engaging in activities that could worsen their health.


Similar to anorexia, they may engage in restrictive eating habits and excessive exercise. They may also be highly focused on “clean” eating and will go to great lengths to avoid exposure to things like pesticides, food coloring, processed food, etc.


Orthorexia sometimes gets confused with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). They’re not the same, though.


Orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with health and clean eating. ARFID, on the other hand, is characterized by severe picky eating (that may even affect one’s ability to consume adequate nutrients).


Research published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment explains that ARFID is also most common among toddlers and young children. This isn’t the case with orthorexia.




Can Someone Be Overweight and Still Have an Eating Disorder?


Many people who are overweight struggle with eating disorders. They may even experience more severe preoccupations with food and weight loss because there is so much stigma throughout the world regarding overweight and obese individuals.


People in larger bodies might have a harder time getting the help they need for eating disorders, too, because they don’t always exhibit the same risk factors and symptoms that people in smaller bodies do.


Male Eating Disorder


What Are the Root Causes of an Eating Disorder?


There are lots of reasons why someone might develop an eating disorder. In some cases, these unhealthy habits around food and dieting are linked to another mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder.


According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (or OCD) is the most common anxiety disorder associated with eating disorders. Eating disorders can stem from other mental health issues, though, such as depression or personality disorders.


Some people have a hard time figuring out on their own what triggered their disorder. Working with a therapist can help with this and give them the tools they need to cope effectively.




Can You Cure an Eating Disorder?


There’s a lot of debate around eating disorder treatment and whether or not eating disorders can be cured.


Some believe that people always have eating disorders and they simply learn to live with and manage them. Conversely, others believe that eating disorders can be cured completely.


In many cases, it’s up to the individual to decide how they want to view themselves and their recovery. Some find it empowering to say that they’ve fully recovered, whereas others find it more realistic to say that they’re in recovery or are recovering. Above all, it is up to you to decide what you can do.




Is an Eating Disorder a Mental Illness?


Eating disorders are considered mental illnesses. They’re not just weight loss diets that have gone too far or gone on too long.


Because an eating disorder is a type of mental illness, it may be accompanied by other types of mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders. And, t’s important for those who are struggling to seek help from a trained professional, such as a therapist.


In conclusion, if seeking treatment for an Eating Disorder, it is important that you work with someone with experience and expertise in disordered eating.



Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work for Treating Eating Disorders?


Many different types of therapy can help people with eating disorders. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (or CBT) appears to be particularly effective, though, especially for those who are struggling with bulimia nervosa.


CBT is the preferred treatment option for bulimia. This is because this and other eating disorders are cognitive in nature. However, there are many helpful approaches beyond CBT.


By helping clients to change their thought processes and behaviors, therapists can work with them to overcome an intense fear of gaining weight and overcome the physical and mental side effects of eating disorders.


What if I Don’t Want to Stop My Eating Disorder?


As with other mental health challenges, if a person with an eating disorder doesn’t want to stop and give up their disordered habits, they will find it very hard to recover.


Also, even if they have family members who pressure them into going to therapy or staying in a rehab facility, they may not be able to make the kinds of changes necessary to enter into recovery.


As a result, this is why education around eating disorders and their effects is so important. Proper mental health treatment can play a big role in helping people get the other kinds of treatment they need.




Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives. We do this through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We write content material for your own education. Our content are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. Additionally, the information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Thus, it should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

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