Eating Disorders

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are extreme expressions of a range of weight and food issues experienced by both men and women. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating. All are serious emotional problems that can have life-threatening consequences.

The 'eating' in 'eating disorder' refers to a set of eating habits, weight management practices and attitudes about weight and body shape. The disorder means that the eating-related attitudes and behaviors result in:

  • loss of self control
  • obsession, anxiety, guilt and other forms of misery
  • alienation from self and others, and
  • physiological imbalances that are potentially life threatening.


Compulsive Eating or Binge eating: A person consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time (less than two hours), but does not engage in purging behavior. This eating is without regard to physical cues signaling hunger or satisfaction. The individual loses the power of choice over food. Driven by forces they don't quite understand or even recognize to eat more than they need.

Bulimia: A person will eat a large quantity of food in a short period of time. Then, the person will attempt to rid the body of the food by some method such as vomiting, using laxatives or intense exercising. This is called the binge-purge cycle. A person may have anorexia and bulimia at the same time.

Anorexia nervosa: A person actively tries to maintain an abnormally low weight through severely restricting the intake of food. There is an intense fear of gaining weight and becoming obese. A person also may engage in purging behaviors after eating a small amount of food.

How do eating disorders develop?

For each individual the cause of the eating disorder will differ. Several broad causes have been identified including culture and family. In our society today, thinness is emphasized. It is portrayed as a key to happiness. This perception promotes poor body images that in turn may lead to disordered eating patterns and eating disorders. Other identified triggers are family dynamics and poor self-image.

Dissatisfaction with self: If I'm not perfect no one will love me. Will I ever be good enough?

Family pressures and concerns: Do well and be popular for them. Don't make waves. Why don't they notice me? Be the best to earn their love.

School and peer pressures: Be thin to be popular. Do well so you can get into college. Everyone diets all the time. Binge with friends after class.

Myths and statistics

Myth #1: Since women college students are usually intelligent and well-educated, they are a low risk group for eating disorders.
Fact: On the contrary, college women are a high-risk group. Reportedly, 5% to 20% of college females have eating disorders. Many are highly intelligent, attractive, and capable of handling successful careers. Yet traditionally, those with eating disorders have low self-esteem, a desire for perfection, and a sense of loneliness.

Myth #2:Only females have eating disorders.
Fact: Among the college student population, a reported 1% to 7% of male students suffer from eating disorders; among the general population, 5%.

Myth #3: " Fattism" is nonexistent. Fat people have no one to blame but themselves.
Fact: Like racism and sexism, "fattism" is a prejudice based on physical characteristics. Many of us consider fatness equivalent to laziness, dumbness, ugliness, and lack of will power.

Myth #4:Eating Disorders are not fatal.
Fact: Based on the information provided by the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, an estimated 1% of U.S. teenagers suffer from anorexia and up to 10% of these will die. Fatal dangers for both anorexia and bulimics include gastric ruptures, cardiac arrhythmia, and heart failure.

Myth #5:Only good little white girls become anorexic.
Fact: Although anorexia appears more pronounced in times of plenty, our culture is currently preoccupied with thinness and many young women, regardless of their background and status, have bought into this obsession.

Myth #6:Compulsive overeating is not as serious a problem as anorexia or bulimia. 
Fact: Those who are compulsive overeaters have an equally difficult struggle with their life and suffer from numerous physical problems and emotional strain. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression are only a few of the potential consequences of compulsive overeating.

Myth #7:Being thin will mean being happy.
Fact: Being happy is within you. It is a state of mind you create that is not dependent on anything else. You can be happy regardless of your weight or circumstances.

Other statistics:

  • Five to ten million adolescent girls and women struggle with eating disorders.
  • One million boys and men struggle with eating disorders.
  • The average American woman is 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds.
  • The average American model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds.
  • Almost half of American women are on a diet on any given day.
  • One in four men is on a diet on any given day.
  • Thirty-five percent of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting.
  • Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet related products each year.
  • Six to ten percent of those with an eating disorder dies, usually from a heart attack.
  • Eighty percent of the female population has dieted before the age of 18.

Warning Signs

  • A marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition
  • The development of abnormal eating habits such as severe dieting, preference for strange foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtime, or secretive binging.
  • An intense preoccupation with weight and body image
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising
  • Self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, use of laxatives, diet pills, or diuretic abuse.
  • Feelings of isolation, depression, or irritability

Helping Others

How to help a friend:

  • Learn about eating disorders so you will know the signs when you see them.
  • Recognize that eating disorders are potentially fatal diseases, and treat them accordingly.
  • Listen to the person with understanding, respect, and sensitivity.
  • Present what you have observed and what your concerns are in a caring but straightforward way (friends that are too angry to talk supportively should not be a part of this discussion).
  • Give the person time to talk and encourage them to verbalize feelings. Ask clarifying questions. Listen in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Provide information about resources for treatment. Offer to go with the person and wait while they have their first appointment.
  • Be available when the person needs support.
  • Share your own struggles, without putting the focus on you.


  • Try to solve the problem for the person; they need a qualified professional.
  • Blame them for doing something wrong or tell them they are acting silly.
  • Try to be a hero or rescuer. You will probably be resented.
  • Gossip about them.
  • Reject or ignore them. Help is needed.
  • Be deceived by their excuses.

Helping Yourself

  • Acceptance that there is a problem is one of the most difficult issues when dealing with eating disorders. Finding alternatives to the current attitudes and lifestyles is a step toward healthier eating habits.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Relax, practice meditation.
  • Practice new behaviors and activities, such as self-improvement classes and hobbies for the early evening hours.
  • Make new rules, such as no eating in the car.
  • Eat without combining reading, working, watching TV, etc.
  • Leave your usual environment, especially when frustrated, under pressure, stressed, or bored.
  • Begin an enjoyable task immediately after eating a meal.
  • Call a friend who knows about your problem and have them just listen.
  • Drink a glass of water.
  • Learn your triggers and your danger zones.

Help is available for eating disorders. If you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder, talk to your doctor, contact Counseling Services (256-782-5475), or call a local mental health center for referral.

Courtesy of Mississippi State University