Eating disorders are serious abnormalities or impairments in eating behaviour that are excessive and compulsive in nature.  These range from severe overeating up to the point of extreme obesity to unhealthy reduction of food intake up to the point of starvation and emaciation.  These eating disturbances are serious enough to be considered mental illnesses requiring intensive treatment because the client’s psychological dependency on these eating patterns is so deeply entrenched.   They pose critical health risks as well.

Control issues and need for approval are common with sufferers

Eating disorders are usually accompanied by control issues and feelings of extreme distress about body shape or weight.  These psychological disorders are often aggravated by depression due to feelings of despair, failure, loss of control, or self-loathing.  A person with an eating disorder is constantly worrying about how food intake affects his/her body shape and weight.  Such an individual calculates his/her self-worth based on the numbers that appear on a weighing scale or a distorted perception of his/her body in the mirror.  However, there is definitely more to an eating disorder than meets the eye.

One observation remains consistent:  beneath the seeming vanity is an underlying tangle of emotional insecurities and a deep-seated need for the approval of others.  Many eating disorders are believed to be behavioural patterns stemming from emotional struggles that need to be resolved in order for the person to develop an enduring healthy relationship with food.

The precise cause of eating disorders is not known but is believed to be a combination of biological, chemical, medical, psychological, and/or environmental factors.

Research shows that for some individuals there may be a genetic reason for the development of an eating disorder.  Anorexia has been found to be eight times more common in individuals who have relatives with the disorder.  Investigation done on twins revealed a tendency to share specific eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, obesity).

Hormones play a part in eating disorders

Hormonal abnormalities are common in eating disorders.  These include chemical abnormalities in the thyroid, reproductive regions, and areas in the brain governing stress, well-being, and appetite.  Although many of these chemical changes are a result of malnutrition and other aspects of eating disorders, they may also play a role in creating susceptibility to the disorders and in perpetuating them.  In addition, there is evidence that links eating disorders to medical conditions such as ADHD.    

Pursuing yet another angle, one study showed that foster girls were more likely to develop bulimia nervosa.  This may possibly be related to their perception of conditional acceptance by non-biological family members.  Social situations such as peer pressure, a culture of thinness, and idealised body types in media are believed to contribute greatly to the fixation on body weight and appearance.  Conflicting or mixed messages are conveyed by media.  On one hand, advertisers market weight-loss programs with an emphasis on the desirability of thinness; one the other hand, the media also floods the market with attractive advertisements for food, especially “junk food” with little or no nutritional value.

Depression has repeatedly been connected with eating disorders, although it has not been determined whether depression is the cause or the effect.

The Australian perspective on eating disorders

In Australia, eating disorders are on the rise.  According to statistics compiled by the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria, 1 in 20 Australian women admitted to having suffered from an eating disorder while 1 in 4 individuals knew someone who had an eating disorder.  Despite the prevalence of onset around adolescence and young adulthood, eating disorders can be found in people as young as seven and as old as 70 years.

Dr. Warren Ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital observed that current television shows reflect the massive obsession with losing weight.  However, Professor Phillipa Hay, head of psychiatry at James Cook University, noted that unlike in the case of drug or alcohol abuse, one cannot give up or abstain from eating as it is a major part of one’s social, interpersonal, and family life.  This makes treatment and recovery a daily challenge, normally lasting many months or years.

The major eating disorders are compulsive overeating, binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa.

Related articles:

Anorexia Nervosa: The Silent Killer

Compulsive Overeating and Binge Eating: Bulimia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa: The Risks of Being Too Thin

If you or someone you know suffers from Anorexia Nervosa or eating issues, they could require professional help. Australia Counselling has therapists, counsellors and psychologists in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and regional areas of Australia. Visit our eating disorders page to search for a counsellor, therapist or psychologist in your local area who works with eating issues.


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