At least 30 million American women and men of all ages suffer from eating disorders, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. In addition, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Varied and complex, eating disorders are serious conditions that can include an irrational fear of gaining weight, compulsive overeating and a distorted body image.
Marissa Jones is a licensed therapist and certified eating disorders specialist with the Laureate Eating Disorders Program, an internationally recognized program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital in Tulsa.
“Eating disorders are chronic illnesses that lead to many medical complications, such as cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological and endocrine issues, in addition to psycho-social issues,” Jones says.
She says many factors contribute to eating disorders, especially genetics and temperament.
“A majority of the population have experimented with diets or had some struggle with body image at some point in their lives,” she says. “However, they do not form eating disorders because only a small portion of the population has the genetic makeup that leads to an eating disorder.
“On the other hand, what starts the eating disorder and what keeps it going may be two different things. Body image disturbances tend to be a chronic issue that contributes to ongoing struggles.”
We form our body perceptions through the lens of family, society, culture, environment and individual experience.
“The messages we are sent from family members, friends and society about what it means to be a woman or man play a role in how we view ourselves, and it shapes the views we have about who and what we are supposed to be and look like,” Jones says. “Eating disorders are a bio-psycho-social disease with our family, social lives and media-driven, thin-body ideal playing significant roles in the formation of one’s body image.”
Emily Christensen, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor with St. John Medical Center Behavioral Health, says the two most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa and that eating disorders of any variety are 2.5 times more prevalent in women than in men. She adds that some other types have emerged.
“Most recently a third category of binge eating was recognized,” Christensen says. “This struggle may not necessarily include purging behaviors, but solely the experience of eating until uncomfortable, eating when not hungry or eating too quickly. Feelings related to this include feeling embarrassed by the amount of food consumed, disgusted by one’s own body or the eating process, or even guilt after eating.”
Another category not yet classified is overexercising, or anorexia athletica, where a person’s compulsive exercise damages the body and causes malnutrition, metabolic and endocrine derangements, and decreased bone density.
“Similar to this new trend is orthorexia, which is an obsession about the ‘right’ or ‘pure’ or ‘healthy’ foods,” Christensen says. “These people spend most of their time obsessively planning meals, preparing meals and even carrying their own food supply around with them. They fail to enjoy their food, suffer social isolation and even isolate themselves to avoid temptation or exposure to ‘bad’ foods.”
For those who believe they may have an eating disorder, Jones recommends visiting a specialist for help.