What is an eating disorder?

Health & Wellness Mental Health

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Please read on to learn a little bit more about eating disorders and how to get help.

What are eating disorders?Eating disorders are serious diseases responsible for both medical and physical illness. They are defined as changes in eating behaviors and patterns that affect mental and physical health. Up to 10% of people may have an eating disorder. They can be present in men and women, among people of color, and across different social, economic, and cultural groups.

Eating Disorders are treatable, but can be life threatening. There are many causes of eating disorders including genetic, social, cultural, and psychological factors. Eating disorders are challenging to treat and it is hard for people to control them. Treatment has many aspects, both medical and psychological. Remember that eating disorders are not just in someone’s head.

There are many different types of eating disorders, including, but not limited to: anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, binge eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and other unspecified eating disorders. You can learn more about them here.

How do I know if someone has an eating disorder?

You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. Someone can “look” healthy but have serious medical and psychological issues caused by the eating disorder.

Some signs and symptoms of an eating disorder include:

-Intense focus on food and weight

-Changes in eating patterns

-Wearing baggy or loose clothing

-Skipping meals or taking small portions

-Changes in mood (mood swings) related to changes in eating

-Restricting types of foods and/or changing patterns of eating

-Excessive exercising

-Weight fluctuations

-Digestive complaints/stomach pain

-Lab changes (like anemia or electrolyte imbalances among others)

-Skin changes

-Cold intolerance

-Dental problems

-Having swollen glands around the face

-Higher risk of infections

There are other signs and symptoms based on the type of eating disorder someone may have, so this list does not include every possible symptom.

Why is it important to treat an eating disorder?

If an eating disorder is not treated, it can lead to severe problems with heart health, stomach and digestive health, brain health, sex and reproductive health, and other changes in the skin and the immune system among other effects. If untreated, eating disorders can lead to death.

What can I do if I have an eating disorder?

First, recognize that there may be an issue. Do not deny the challenge that you or a loved one are facing. Eating disorders are not just in someone’s head and cannot be treated by just telling the person to eat.

Second, learn more about eating disorders and their treatment. Treatment includes seeing a clinician who can provide medical and mental health care, seeing a therapist, and having a plan for recovery. Family and/or peer support is often a key part of treatment.

Third, create an environment that supports recovery. Take away triggers (like diet books, scales), make a plan for what to do if there are challenges, and ask for support to take an appearance and weight neutral approach (for example, ask family members not to comment on how you look, what you are eating, or what you are wearing).

Fourth, support yourself or your loved one in their process of recovering. It isn’t always a straight line and eating disorders can often come back. This happens most when someone is facing an eating disorder after the age of 25, but even people that experience eating issues at a younger age can have symptoms come back. This often happens with major life events such as loss, having a child, or other stressors.

Finally, make a plan for getting help if you are in crisis or need support quickly. There are a number of resources including peer support, groups, and individual treatment that can help. Residential treatment can also be beneficial if there is not support at home to change. Hospitalization is necessary if someone is medically unstable due to an eating disorder.

Remember, if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, know that there is help. In the U.S., you can contact the NEDA helpline. In the UK, you may contact BeatEating Disorders helpline.

The bottom line:

Eating disorders are serious diseases that affect mental and physical health. There are many causes and symptoms of eating disorders. Support is critical in recovering from eating disorders and involves, family, medical, and ongoing support.

Stay safe. Stay well.

Those Nerdy Girls


Please note: If you or a loved one need additional eating disorder resources, please see the resources below. And if you are in need of immediate assistance, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 OR 1-800-273-8255 (Español: 1-888-628-9454; Hearing Support: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

Eating Disorder Referral and Information (US)

Fighting Eating Disorder in Underrepresented Populations

People of Color and Eating Disorders

Project Health Resources

Link to original Those Nerdy Girls Facebook post