Disordered Eating

It is common for people to focus on their weight, try out diets, or indulge a little too much from time to time. However, for some people, their preoccupation with food and weight can be a sign of a more serious problem. Eating disorders are serious and even life-threatening conditions that affect food and eating behaviours. People of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds can experience disordered eating.

Many people conceal their eating disorders or live with symptoms for years before seeking help. If you suspect you have an eating disorder, schedule a consultation with one of our therapists, who can help you find relief from this challenging condition.

What are Eating Disorders?

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are more than just about food. They often serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions or regaining a sense of control. Eating disorders can affect your identity, self-worth, and self-esteem.

People with eating disorders may exhibit a range of symptoms, from mild to severe. Common symptoms include extreme food restriction, bingeing, or purging behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise. The most prevalent types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder.

Overhead image of ice cream, chips, chocolate wrappers, hand weights and a measuring tape on a pink table, illustrating the concept that eating disorders can affect your identity, self-worth and self-esteem

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is perhaps the most recognized eating disorder. It typically develops during adolescence and can persist into adulthood. Individuals with anorexia often perceive themselves as overweight, even when they are significantly underweight. They may constantly monitor their weight, avoid specific foods, over-exercise, and severely limit their calorie intake.

Image of a plate containing 4 peas and 4 kernels of corn, illustrating the concept that anorexia nervosa severely restricts calorie intake and can cause substantial harm to the body.

Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Being underweight for one’s age and height
  • Restrictive eating patterns
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Persistent behaviours to avoid weight gain
  • Binge-eating and purging episodes
  • Self-worth centered on weight

It’s not uncommon for people with anorexia to also display obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms. Obsessions frequently involve food, and rituals or compulsions may revolve around eating, weighing oneself, and even collecting recipes or food images.

Anorexia can cause substantial harm to the body, leading to weakened bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and fine hair growth all over the body. Despite physical symptoms and low body weight, individuals with anorexia often still see themselves as overweight and engage in behaviours to “fix it.” In severe cases, anorexia can result in multi-organ failure and death.

Image of a hand handcuffed to a scale, illustrating that people with anorexia often also display obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms.

Bulimia Nervosa

Like anorexia, bulimia typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood and can continue into adulthood. However, people with bulimia often maintain relatively normal body weight. Individuals with bulimia regularly binge on large quantities of food in a short period, followed by purging.

Binges often involve feeling out of control or zoning out. Binge foods are usually unhealthy items that the person would typically avoid. Purging aims to eliminate consumed calories and alleviate fullness discomfort. Common purging behaviours include induced vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, diuretics, emetics, and enemas.

Image of a large variety of junk foods, illustrating that Bulimia Nervosa involves bingeing on large quantities of food in a short time followed by purging.

Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Recurring binge-eating episodes
  • Feeling unable to stop or control food intake
  • Recurring compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain (e.g., vomiting)
  • Self-worth centered on weight
  • Fear of weight gain

The purging behaviors linked to bulimia can cause significant health problems, such as tooth decay, acid reflux, severe dehydration, and hormonal disturbances. Purging often leads to imbalances in electrolyte levels, like sodium, potassium, and calcium. In severe cases, bulimia can cause heart attack, stroke, or death.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is a widespread eating disorder that usually begins during adolescence but can develop at any age. Individuals with binge eating disorder consume large amounts of food in a short timeframe. They may feel a lack of control or an inability to stop during these binges.

​Unlike anorexia and bulimia, people with binge eating disorder do not restrict food or use “balancing out” behaviours like induced vomiting or excessive exercise after bingeing.

Common symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Consuming large quantities of food quickly
  • Eating in secret
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Bingeing even when not hungry
  • Lack of control during binge episodes
  • Feelings of shame, disgust, or guilt regarding binge-eating behavior
  • No use of purging behaviours, such as vomiting, calorie restriction, or excessive exercise
Image of a large variety of junk foods, illustrating that binge eating disorder can become life-threating if not treated.

Many people with binge eating disorder are overweight, but the condition can also occur in those within a normal weight range. If untreated, binge eating disorder can become severe, debilitating, and even life-threatening.

Other Types of Eating Disorders

Several types of eating disorders can significantly impact a person’s life, including:

  • Pica: Consuming or craving non-food items such as dirt, chalk, or hair.
  • Rumination Disorder: Voluntarily regurgitating food after consumption, followed by re-chewing and swallowing or spitting it out.
  • Purging Disorder: Participating in purging behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise without any binge-eating.
  • Orthorexia: An obsession with healthy eating that results in severe food restrictions, with a primary focus on adhering to dietary rules.
  • Chewing and Spitting: A disordered eating pattern where an individual chews food and then spits it out to avoid calorie absorption or alleviate tension.
  • Diabulimia: People with type 1 diabetes who intentionally skip insulin injections to lose weight.

Will an Eating Disorder Improve Without Help?

While the severity of eating disorders may vary over time, it is highly unusual for these behaviours to improve without intervention. Seeking treatment early on can lead to better outcomes.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Image of a mostly eaten apple with a measuring tape around the middle, illustrating that eating disorders can be treated through therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

There isn’t a single cause for eating disorders; instead, they result from a complex interplay of factors, including:

  • Family history
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Biochemical factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Environmental factors

Eating disorders are complex conditions that develop gradually. It’s crucial to remember that they are not a sign of weakness and can affect anyone. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, as clinical intervention is vital for managing symptoms and improving your life.

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?

Eating disorders can be treated through therapy, medication, or a combination of both. In severe cases, hospitalization or specialized outpatient treatment may be beneficial.

Counselling and Therapy for Eating Disorders

Therapy is an effective and lasting solution for managing eating disorders. It teaches individuals how to cope with difficult emotions and adopt healthy coping mechanisms, helping redefine their relationship with food.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially helpful for treating eating disorders, as well as related anxiety and depression. Through CBT, a therapist will work with the individual to identify negative thinking and behavioral patterns and learn healthier approaches.

For those who have experienced trauma, specialized therapists can help clients uncover the roots of their struggles and equip them with useful tools for overcoming them. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help. We can assist you in breaking free from a dysfunctional relationship with food that has kept you trapped.