eating disorder

What is an eating disorder, and how to deal with it?

While the term “eating” is in the name, eating disorder is about more than food. They are complicated mental health issues. They often need the intervention of medical and clinical experts to change course.

The American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition, explains these disorders (DSM-5).

In the United States alone, approximately 20 million women and 10 million men have or have had eating disorders at some point in their lives.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that cause severe disturbances in a person’s daily diet. It may manifest itself as eating extremely small quantities of food or severely overeating. The disorder can begin as eating too little or too much. But an obsession with eating and eating takes over a person’s life leading to serious changes.

In addition to abnormal eating habits, there is distress and concern about body weight or form. These disorders also coexist with other mental illnesses, such as: 

  • Depression
  • Drug abuse 
  • Or anxiety disorders

Eating disorders manifested at a young age will lead to severe impairments in growth, development, reproduction.  It will overall affect one’s mental and social well-being. Also, they increase the risk of early death. People with anorexia are 18 times more likely to die early compared to people of similar age.

Who gets eating disorders? 

Eating disorders can affect men and women and are slightly more common among women. These disorders mostly begin during puberty or young adulthood. But these can also develop during childhood or later.

Signs & Symptoms of an Eating disorder

A man or woman suffering from an eating disorder may have many signs and symptoms, several of which are:

  • Chronic dieting despite being dangerously underweight
  • Constant changes in weight
  • Obsession with the calories and fat content of food
  • Continued obsession with food, recipes, or cooking. The person may cook intricate meals for others but may refrain from partaking
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Avoid social events, families, and friends. Can be isolated and withdrawn
  • Switching between overeating and fasting times


The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. As for most mental illnesses, there can be multiple factors, such as:

  • Genetics. Some individuals may have genes that increase their chance of having eating disorders. Biological causes, such as changes in brain chemicals, may play a role in eating disorders.
  • Physiological and emotional health. People with eating disorders may have psychological and emotional issues that contribute to their condition. They may have poor self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behaviour, and troubled affairs.

Risk Factors

Teenage girls and young women are more likely than teenage boys and young men to have anorexia or bulimia. But males may also have eating disorders. While eating disorders can appear in a broad range of ages, they mostly develop in the teens and early 20s.

Certain factors can increase the risk of developing eating disorders, including:

  • Family history. Eating disorders are slightly more likely to develop in people who have parents or siblings who have had eating disorders.
  • Other mental health problems. People with an eating disorder also have a history of anxiety disease, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Dieting and starvation. Dieting is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders. Starvation damages the brain and influences changes in mood, rigidity in thinking, anxiety, and lack of appetite.
  • Stress. Whether it’s going to college, traveling, landing a new job, or a family or relationship problem, the change will lead to stress, which can raise the risk of an eating disorder.

How to deal with an eating disorder?

Here are the ways you can deal with an eating disorder:


Although eating disorders are diagnosed by signs, symptoms, and eating patterns. When the doctor suspects that you have an eating disorder, they are likely to perform a test and ask for tests to decide a diagnosis. You can see both your primary care provider and a mental health professional for a diagnosis.

Assessments and tests shall generally include:

Physical exam. Your doctor will likely examine you to rule out other medical causes of your eating problems. He or she may also order laboratory tests.

Psychological evaluation. A doctor or health care provider is likely to ask about your emotions, feelings, and eating habits. You may also be required to complete a psychological self-assessment list of questions.

Other studies. Additional examinations can be performed to check for any problems linked to the eating disorder.

Your mental health professional can also use diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association.


Treatment of an eating disorder requires a joint approach. The team includes primary care providers, mental health experts. There may also be dietitians—all with expertise in eating disorders.

Treatment depends on a particular type of eating disorder. In general, though, it includes nutrition education, psychotherapy, and medicine. However, you may require emergency hospitalization if your life is at risk.

  • Healthy eating: Your team members will work with you to design a schedule to help you achieve healthier eating habits.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is also called talk therapy. It can help you understand how to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones. It may include:
  1. Family-based therapy(FBT). FBT is an evidence-based therapy for children and youth with eating disorders. The family is committed to ensuring that the infant or other family member follows healthy dietary habits and maintains a healthy weight.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is commonly used in the treatment of eating disorders, especially for bulimia and binge eating disorders.


Medication can’t cure eating disorders. However, certain medications may help control the urge to binge or purge or manage excess food and diet issues. Medicines, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, may help. They can suppress the symptoms of depression or anxiety associated with eating disorders.


Your doctor might recommend hospitalization if you have serious health problems, such as anorexia, which has resulted in severe malnutrition. Some hospitals are specialized in treating patients with eating disorders. Some people may offer day programs rather than full hospitalization. Specialized programs for eating disorders may offer more intensive treatment over longer periods.

The Bottom Line

Eating disorders are conditions of mental health that usually require treatment. They can also be harmful to the body if left untreated.

If you have an eating disorder or know someone who might have one, seek the help of a health care professional specializing in eating disorders.

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