Eating Disorder

Teenage girl talking to therapist about her eating disorder.

What are eating disorders?

<<Back to Traditional Psychiatry

Eating disorders are mental health conditions identified by extremes in eating behaviors as well as thoughts and emotions related to the effects of eating. These disorders can have calamitous results on physical and mental health when untreated.

Unfortunately, eating disorders are often misunderstood as a lifestyle choice or a character weakness. These common misconceptions do a disservice to the true nature of eating disorders, which lies in brain dysfunction.

Eating disorders can affect every aspect of a person’s life – from physical health to psychological stability to social interactions. Because these conditions are associated with increased mortality risk — including suicide — it is imperative to seek or find help when you or a loved one is affected.

Who suffers from eating disorders?

It is estimated that at least 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. Most begin in adolescence or young adulthood and generally affect women more than men. However, men are less likely to seek treatment than women. Additionally, those involved in activities like sports or the arts, where body shape and type are emphasized, are at higher risk for eating disorders.


Are there any co-occurring disorders?

It is common for those affected by eating disorders to be similarly affected by other mental health diagnoses. We often see the following conditions in eating disorder patients:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol abuse
  • OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder

What causes eating disorders?

There are a number of factors that can lead to developing an eating disorder. Unfortunately, some of the early effects of eating disorders can complicate the brain’s interpretation of these factors, leading to further unhealthy eating patterns.

Some of the root causes that can lead to eating disorders are:

  • Brain abnormalities
  • Family history of an eating disorder
  • Low self-esteem
  • Traumatic experiences

What are the types of eating disorders and their symptoms?

It is important to note the significant distinctions between different types of eating disorders. Some result in extreme weight loss, and others lead to significant weight gain. Others create obsessive behavior about certain types of foods or nutritive qualities. Additionally, we must realize that all affected people will respond differently, based on their own personalities and unique brain function.

There are four primary eating disorders that cover the bulk of this topic. However, we also see a rising number of patients who suffer from conditions that fall outside these more common afflictions. We detail below these disorders and some identifiers to help recognize them in yourself or a loved one.

We encourage you to contact us immediately if you experience or witness any of these symptoms for an early and proper diagnosis. Early treatment is important to prevent a progression of the disorder or the development of another related illness.


Anorexa Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (anorexia) involves an unhealthy misconception of self-image. People with anorexia tend to see themselves as overweight or obese even when the opposite may be true. This disorder generates a fear of being overweight or becoming overweight to the extent that extreme measures are taken to avoid weight issues. People suffering from anorexia place dangerous limits on their intake of food as a result of their condition.

There are two sub-types of anorexia to distinguish: restricting and binge-eating/purging. Those affected by restricting type employ a combination of diet, fasting, and exercise to control their weight, while the binge-eating/purging type involve binge eating and purging behaviors to manipulate their bodies.

Symptoms of anorexia:

  • Obsessive concern with weight and weight gain
  • Restricted eating
  • Dizziness (resulting from dehydration)
  • Muscle weakness and decline
  • Extreme constipation
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Low cold tolerance
  • Brittle nails and hair
  • Menstrual periods affected

Several medical complications arise when people suffer from anorexia. When nutrition is limited, brain function naturally declines. Starving the brain of necessary nourishment can lead to an increased misconception of reality, spiraling into further harmful behaviors. Improper use of laxatives for weight control can result in dangerous heart rhythm issues. Other unintended consequences of anorexia include anemia, osteoporosis, fatigue, infertility, and other heart problems.

Because of the complications resulting from self-starvation related to anorexia, it is the eating disorder with the highest mortality rate, with suicide a high concern. A 2011 research study showed that 1 in 5 deaths attributed to anorexia were self-inflicted.


Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa (bulimia) often causes a lack of control while eating, leading to over-consumption. Closely following these periods of indulgence are some unsound practices that attempt to prevent weight gain from the excess calories consumed. These behaviors include purging, radical exercise, and the abuse of laxatives or weight loss medications.

Often more difficult to detect than anorexia, bulimia affects those of all body types, from significantly underweight to excessively obese. Note that those falling in the underweight category may more likely fit the binge eating/purging type described in anorexia above.

Because it can be extremely challenging to spot a bulimic person, we encourage you to contact us with any concerns so that our experts can make a prompt and proper diagnosis.

Symptoms of bulimia:

  • Preoccupation with weight gain
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Volumes of empty food wrappers and containers without explanation
  • Unexplained quantities of food disappearing
  • Heartburn and reflux issues
  • Excessive exercise after overeating
  • Recurrent bathroom visits post meal (to purge)
  • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
  • Decayed tooth enamel (from acid erosion)

Naturally, when individuals suffering from bulimia engage in these unhealthy behaviors, their bodies will respond poorly. Common problems resulting from bulimia include gastrointestinal issues as well as electrolyte imbalances (can lead to cardiac arrest).


Binge Eating Disorder

Similar to bulimia, those with a binge eating disorder will engage in repeated episodes of binge eating. These individuals feel that they have no control over their eating habits and regularly consume excessive amounts of food. However, these individuals do not take steps to purge themselves of the excess calories as someone with bulimia does.

Binge eating disorder results in added calorie consumption, often leading to obesity and other health complications such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and hypertension. The ramifications of these eating habits can result in negative performance at work or in school. The dangers inherent in binge eating disorder can be devastating to the individual and to the family.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder:

  • Excessive eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Continuing to eat past “full” stage
  • Feeling out of control while eating
  • Eating alone
  • Hiding food for secret consumption later

Individuals with binge eating disorder may become obese, which can lead to myriad other physical and mental health complications including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and a number of psychiatric illnesses.



Orthorexia causes an excessive preoccupation with healthy eating. Normally, healthy eating is a desirable attribute. However, people with orthorexia develop an unhealthy obsession with nutrition, creating anxiety about consuming anything that deviates from their view of a “proper” diet.

Symptoms of orthorexia:

  • Eliminating entire food categories from diet (e.g., no dairy, no carbs, etc.)
  • Obsessively reviewing food labels
  • Extremely narrow list of “approved” foods
  • Anxiety when accepted foods are not available

Unfortunately, while healthy eating is a responsible activity, individuals with orthorexia often eliminate so many varieties of foods that they also remove important nutrients that come from those foods, or they fail to give their body adequate calories for healthy living.


Are other eating disorders dangerous?

While the conditions listed above constitute the majority of eating disorders, there are other disorders to be aware of. Though not as common, these disorders can be just as dangerous as the ones already discussed.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): This recently defined eating disorder stems from an aversion to certain foods because of a sensory experience (taste, texture, etc.), which results in inadequate nutrition.

Pica: People with pica tend to eat non-food items (chalk, clay, soap, etc.) that provide no nutritional value and can result in digestive problems such as intestinal blockage.

Rumination Disorder: Individuals with rumination disorder repeatedly regurgitate and re-chew their food, leading to esophageal problems.


How do you treat eating disorders?

Regardless of the specific disorder, a correct and early diagnosis is the first step in treatment. Contact us today if you suspect that you or a loved one has any symptoms of an eating disorder so we can work together to prevent eventual physical and mental complications.

Once diagnosed properly, our expert staff will develop a treatment plan to address the specific needs of the patient and the eating disorder. This plan will include treatment of any physical complications that result from the eating disorder.

The treatment plan will utilize the form of therapy most closely tied to success with your condition. A combination of the following may be applied to seek the most efficient and most lasting healing process:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Focusing on behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, this form of therapy will re-train the brain to reject unsound thinking patterns and embrace healthy eating behaviors.
  • Group cognitive behavioral therapy: Sometimes working to re-train brain function within a group of like-minded individuals offers added benefits to the therapy while learning to manage behaviors and feelings.
  • Family therapy: In this form of therapy, the entire family is trained to work together to create a healthy environment for healing and a restoration of wholesome eating patterns.


Other treatment options:

  • Medications: While medications cannot heal eating disorders on their own, they can be effective partners in treatment. However, proper diagnosis and dosing is essential. Only certified professionals should prescribe medications for eating disorders as a part of a larger treatment plan.
  • Hospitalization: Acute eating disorders may require hospitalization for a time, particularly if the eating disorder has reached a life-threatening stage. However, restorative therapy occurs best outside a hospital setting, so the goal in hospitalization should be to stabilize the patient’s health and allow therapy to continue under the guidance of licensed professionals.
  • Residential treatment: Sometimes treatment for eating disorders requires a temporary move to a residential facility equipped for longer-term care. Even in these scenarios, you should work closely with your therapist to monitor progress while in the residential facility and after release.

How can Bridgepoint help?

Regardless of the disorder or its severity, our leading staff members are equipped to correctly identify and diagnose your eating disorder so that we can work with you to establish a course of action for you or your loved one as you seek healing and right thinking.

Your health and wholeness in all matters are our primary concern. We are eager to assist you and your family through any complications and restore strained relationships that result from factors outside your control. Call us today to schedule an appointment and start the process of healing.

Visit Our Resources Page

Bridgepoint encourages clinicians, patients, and their loved ones to research new methodologies and techniques to improve mental health and wellbeing. To assist with your own learning, we’ve put together a variety of resources on a variety of topics – including genomics – to help you on your mental health journey.

pensive woman in front of the window