Student Wellness Services

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Eating Disorders

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Despite their name, eating disorders are not about food. They are usually developed as a way to cope with a deeper problem that is too painful or difficult to deal with directly. This disorder can affect anyone regardless of their cultural background, race, socio-economic status, or gender; although more women than men are diagnosed.

There are 3 main types of mood disorders: anorexia nervosabulimia nervosa, & binge-eating disorder.

What Causes Eating Disorders? 

Eating disorders are complex and are believed to be influenced by psychological, interpersonal, social, and biological factors.

Psychological factors

  • Poor body image
  • Maladaptive eating attitudes & weight beliefs
  • Over-evaluation of appearance

Interpersonal factors

  • Distressing family and personal relationships
  • Difficulty expressing emotions or feelings
  • Being teased about your size or weight
  • History of physical or sexual abuse

Social Factors

  • Cultural pressures to be thin or attain the “perfect body”
  • Cultural norms that only value physical appearance
  • Specific pressures to control weight (e.g. athletic pursuits)

Biological Factors

  • Family history
  • Gender
  • Unbalanced brain chemicals that control hunger, appetite, and digestion

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People who develop anorexia will refuse to maintain a body weight that is normal for their age and height and often have an intense fear of becoming fat, despite being underweight. They will also usually deny the seriousness of their low body weight and as a result of being undernourished; women will develop amenorrhea (i.e., loss of menstrual periods). 

Warning signs typically include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat, and calories
  • Compulsive or ritualistic behaviour (e.g., cutting food into small pieces)
  • Frequently commenting about feeling “fat” despite weight loss & anxiety over gaining weight
  • Denial of hunger
  • Consistent excuses to avoid mealtimes or social situations involving food
  • Withdrawal from friends and usual activities
  • Rigid and excessive exercise routines needed to “burn off” calories
  • Wearing baggy or layered clothes to conceal weight loss
  • Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or passing out due to low blood pressure
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Pale, dry cracked skin
  • Feeling weak

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia involves a cycle of bingeing followed by some type of compensatory behaviour (i.e., self-induced vomiting). People with bulimia will eat large amounts of food, loss of control over their eating behaviour and then either self-induce vomiting, use laxatives, fast, or engage in obsessive or compulsive exercise. They also have an extreme concern over their body weight and shape. 

Warning signs typically include:

  • Preoccupation with weight and/or food
  • Evidence of binge eating (e.g., large amounts of food disappearing in short periods of time with empty wrappers/containers)
  • Evidence of purging (e.g., signs and/or smells of vomit, laxative/diuretic wrappers)
  • Rigid and excessive exercise routine to “burn off” calories
  • Swelling of checks or jaw and broken blood vessels under eyes
  • Mood swings and difficulty concentrating
  • Calluses on backs of hands and knuckles
  • Discoloration of teeth with unexplained tooth decay and gum problems
  • Withdrawal from friends and usual activities

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge-eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is characterized by recurrent binge eating without compensatory measures (i.e., self-induced vomiting). People who develop binge-eating disorder will eat a large amount of food within a set period of time and often feel out of control during a binge.

Warning signs typically include:

  • Eating large amounts of food until they feel physically uncomfortable
  • Stealing or taking other people’s food, eating discarded food and/or searching desperately for food
  • Pacing or wandering during binges
  • Eating in secret
  • Feeling ashamed, distressed, or depressed after overeating
  • Intense urges or food cravings
  • Rapid eating
  • Often displays signs and symptoms of depression