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10 Things to Know About the Psychology of Eating Disorders

Eating is an essential thing we do each day to stay alive. We eat for survival and energy. We know when to do so based on our built in mechanisms that allow us to regulate our eating and our appetite. Luckily for us, eating is also pleasurable. Food can be delicious and satisfying! But what happens when we aren’t so fortunate to have this type of relationship with food? How come certain individuals cannot regulate their eating? 

Unfortunately for some people, eating is not an every day task that they simply check off their to-do list. Some people struggle with eating disorders that can make something as simple as eating breakfast a massive hurdle to get over every single day. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that are deeply connected to our mental health. They can lead to serious mental and physical disorders and ultimately destroy body function. Here is our list of 10 things to know about the psychology of eating disorders. 

There are many different types of eating disorders.

When we think of eating disorders, we all may think of something different. Often times people connect an eating disorder to someone who is afraid to eat because they do not want to gain weight or they are trying to lose weight. This may be true in some cases. But there are actually many different types of eating disorders. Symptoms for disorders can look different for each person depending on their mental health. However, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, describes these as the most common types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Pica
  • Rumination disorder
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder 

Binge eating is a common disorder that is often overlooked.  

As mentioned above, many people associate eating disorders with a lack of eating. However, an eating disorder actually refers to an individual with an unhealthy relationship with food. This can mean:

  • too little food
  • too much food
  • some other harmful relationship

Binge eating is an illness that is often overlooked but it is actually one of the most common eating disorders, especially in the United States. 

Research has shown that binge eating typically starts in adolescent or early childhood. People suffering from this disorder typically eat very large portions of food in very short periods of time. They have no control over when they are doing this. These binges happen regardless of if they are hungry or full. This then leads to feelings of shame, distress, and guilt. The continuous cycle is extremely unhealthy and often leads to obesity and medical complications. 

Some mental disorders are associated with eating disorders.

While not one individual’s struggles are the same as another’s, there are some similarities when struggling with psychological disorders. Over the years, research has shown that some common mental disorders are associated with eating disorders. These common mental heath disorders that are associated with eating disorders include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance/Alcohol abuse
  • Self-injury
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

In many cases, the deeper mental disorder is what is actually causing someone’s unhealthy relationship to food. Depression could be ruining their appetite. It might be their need to have control of their life in some way. Possibly an addiction to substances make them physically sick, and so on. This is why experts believe that the first step to treatment is treating the mental health disorder at play first or at the same time. 

Genetics can play a role in eating disorders.

Eating disorders are intricate illnesses with unlimited factors at play. These may contribute to an unhealthy and possibly dangerous relationship with food:

  • troubled relationships
  • low self esteem
  • mental health disorders
  • social media culture
  • career choice



However, research has also shown that 40-60% of the factors that influence an eating disorder developing are actually due to genetics. Psychologists and researchers have been studying the role of genetics in eating disorders for decades. According to UNC Health Talk, “Studies of families and twins have confirmed that eating disorders run in families because of shared genetic factors.” There are hundreds of genes that can drive someone’s development of an eating disorder.

Anyone can have an eating disorder. 


Studies have shown that in the United States, about 20 million women and 10 million men either have or have had an eating disorder. This number shows that eating disorders do not discriminate. While eating disorders usually arise in the teens or early adolescent years, everyone’s story is different. Additionally, anyone can have an eating disorder, regardless of their:

  • age
  • gender
  • background
  • social status
  • other factors

There may be ways to tell if someone is struggling.


If someone is struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another eating disorder, there may be ways to detect their symptoms. According to Medical News Today, there are behavioral, emotional, and physical signs of an eating disorder. Some of the more common signs which have been borrowed from their article are listed below:

Behavioral:

  • Restricting food intake severely
  • Refusing to eat certain foods or whole food groups (such as carbs)
  • Making dramatic changes to their diet to lose weight (extreme diets)
  • Saying that they feel or look fat
  • Visting the bathroom immediately after meals 


Emotional:

  • Preoccupation with body shape, size, weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Feelings of disgust, shame, or guilt associated with eating


Physical:

  • Feeling cold a lot
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Brittle nails
  • Stomach cramps, acid reflux, other digestive issues
  • Dizzy, tired, weak
  • Difficulty concentrating and sleeping
  • Muscle wasting

Eating disorders are extremely dangerous.

Eating disorders are extremely dangerous. Possibly someone is under-eating, over-eating, or eating things that are actually non-edible. They are putting their physical health at serious risk. Individuals who suffer from eating disorders are not giving their body the nutrients it requires to stay healthy and function as it should. If an eating disorder goes untreated, it can lead to a long list of medical conditions that can do serious damage to the body. This goes to show that psychological health and physical health go hand-in-hand. 

Eating disorders are more common in women. 

Many studies have shown that eating disorders are far more common in teenage girls and women. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) claims that around 20 million women in the United States struggle with eating disorders. But why is that? 

Women seem to be more vulnerable to these disorders for two key reasons. One, societal pressure. For as long as any of us can remember, society has pressured women to be skinny more than it ever has to men. And two, women’s brain activity and it’s common connection to body dysmorphia. Many female patients being treated for anorexia or other eating disorders perceive their bodies to be much larger than they actually are. Studies have shown that these patients actually over estimate their body size in a way that men do not. 

Social media may be contributing to the rising concern of eating disorders. 

It’s hard to believe that social media is still technically new to all of us. Facebook hasn’t even been around for 20 years and yet social media is a firm part of nearly every person’s life now. Social media is constantly at our finger tips and seeming to reach a younger and younger demographic each year. It’s hard to not assume that social media is contributing to the rising concern of eating disorders in America. Social media platforms are plastered with filtered, photoshopped, and altered photos and videos of people’s bodies. Many of these photos and videos are not a realistic depiction of what someone’s body looks like. But they can lead to struggles with:

  • self esteem
  • self image
  • an unhealthy relationship to food and exercise

There is treatment and therapy for eating disorders. 

Eating disorders can affect nearly anyone. The physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that come with an eating disorder can drastically vary from person to person. But but one thing is for sure– treatment is out there and treatment works. Just as the symptoms can vary, the types of treatment can vary depending on what someone requires. Some treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy 
  • Maudsley approach
  • Medication
  • Nutrition counseling

Even if someone is not clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, they can still seek out treatment for their food-related struggles. Then they can work on a way to understand and manage them. 

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