Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating disorders come in different forms, but the consequences of eating disorders are life threatening, no matter the type. Many people look in the mirror and don’t like what they see. Chances are, almost everyone can point to some specific problem with their appearance, from an abundance of freckles to a lack of hair or a nose that’s just slightly too big. While these issues might be real, they’re also easy to forget, allowing most people to turn from their mirrors with a shrug and go about their day. For people with eating disorders, forgetting is almost impossible. Each time a person struggling with an eating disorder sees his or her body, they don’t like the image that stares back at them.

When an eating disorder is present, consuming food becomes a battle of wills, with the body the ultimate hostage in the struggle. For some people, eating disorders lead to major health problems and other addiction issues. Knowing the signs and symptoms of different types of eating disorders can help you or a loved one recognize the problem and get help.

Anorexia Nervosa

Young woman taking selfieOn average, adult women need 1600 to 2200 calories per day and adult men need 2000 to 2800 calories per day, depending on age and activity level, to maintain n healthy body weight.1 People who have anorexia eat far fewer calories during a standard day, giving them with a feeling of control when other things seem out of control.

Anorexia is a disease that most often begins in adolescence, but some people develop the disease in adulthood. While almost anyone can get anorexia, the vast majority of those who develop the disorder are girls and women. In the United States, women are rewarded for being thin, and women who lose weight are complimented for doing so. The culture also provides women with constant reminders that the ideal female body is thin. When the average American model is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 117 pounds and the average American woman is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, the discrepancy between was is perceived and what is normal is striking. When faced with relentless pressure to be thin, it’s easy for almost anyone to develop an obsession with calorie control.

Not only is anorexia defined as an obsessive need to be thin, it can also be described as a desperate need to take control. For example, researchers found that women of varying races and socioeconomic backgrounds developed eating disorders as a result of enduring persistent environmental stress, such as partner abuse, racism or financial difficulties. For these women, controlling their bodies seemed like the best way to take some power back.2 Although people with anorexia may be desperately hungry most of the time, they go to extreme measures to keep themselves from eating, subsisting on only crackers, tea and diet soda, instead of nutritious foods. They cook for others, but never eat what they cook. They exercise for hours, hoping to work off any calories they have consumed. They use laxatives or enemas to purge their bodies of calories, and as a result are desperately thin. Those who struggle with anorexia also wear thick clothes or many layers to cover the wasting that is taking place. In addition to these changes in appearance, anorexia suffers can develop serious health problems, including:

  • Infertility
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry skin
  • Constipation
  • Heart damage
  • Brain damage
  • Organ failure
  • Lethargy
  • Thin bones

Anorexia is a life-threatening condition. Without fuel to survive, the body’s major systems break down one by one. If the person starts eating again, some of that damage can be undone. But without proper treatment and adequate nutrition the end result is death.

Bulimia Nervosa

Weight scaleBulimia nervosa is another eating disorder characterized by the need to be thin and in control. The methods those who struggle with bulimia use to achieve the results they seek are highly destructive. The world around them doesn’t change, just because the way they eat has changed, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with bulimia nervosa tend to have a healthy weight, and some are even slightly overweight.3

Bulimia is a cyclical process. In the beginning, the person eats a huge amount of food all in one sitting. Some people report feeling like they were in a trance while binging, downing huge amounts of food without tasting or realizing they were eating. These trance-like states only stop when the body cannot accept any more food or when the food is gone. Binging often happens in secret, as the person knows that others wouldn’t accept the behavior. The person might feel deep shame or physical disgust and use forced vomiting, laxatives or diuretics to stop the calories from hitting the body. Repeated vomiting wears away tooth enamel and causes throat burns, damage to salivary glands and chronic heartburn. Those who abuse laxatives can also develop intestinal irritations, as well as dehydration. This chronic dehydration can lead to heart and kidney problems.

Binge Eating

Binge eating is a relatively new classification of eating disorder. People with binge eating disorders also engage in compulsive eating, taking in an entire day’s worth of calories in just one sitting. They also feel deep shame and disgust, but do not resort to purging to remove the food from their bodies. Instead, they suppress their feelings until they feel the need to binge again. Since people with this disorder eat a large amount of food each day, they are often overweight or obese.

Significant amounts of extra weight puts pressure on the heart, lungs, kidneys and other vital organs and can lead to joint pain, reduced mobility, depression and repeated binging.

Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorders can make a person feel desperate and out of control. Seeking help for a troubled mind, some people turn to drugs and alcohol. A struggle with addiction issues and eating disorders can make life seem almost unbearable. Drugs of addiction can also play into the need for thinness that people with eating disorders face. For example, methamphetamine reduces the appetite, allowing people to go for days without eating anything at all. For people with anorexia, the drug might seem like a perfect companion, allowing them to reduce food cravings and achieve greater levels of thinness.

Treatment Options

People with anorexia, who have strong family support they can lean on, benefit from a therapy known as the Maudsley Approach. In essence, the family is asked to take over meal preparation for the anorexic person, and a therapist helps the entire family learn more about the disease and how it can distort views about nutrition and healthy eating. Over time, as the person begins to achieve a healthy weight, the person is granted more control over food prep duties.

People with bulimia and binge eating disorder can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they’re asked to look at their problems and come up with effective solutions. Instead of deflecting their pain by focusing on food, they can problem solve and come to a real resolution that can reduce their suffering. These same therapies are also used in treating substance abuse and addiction.

Finding Help for Eating Disorders and Addiction

If you’re ready to leave your addiction and your eating disorder behind, we’d like to help you. At The Oaks at La Paloma, we provide integrated treatment for co-occurring addiction and mental illness, including eating disorders. If you have any questions about the information in this article, or you’d like to find out more about treatment, call our toll-free helpline now.


1Estimated Calorie Requirements.” WebMD, WebMD. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

2 Troscianko, Emily T. “Taking, Losing, and Letting Go of Control in Anorexia.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 18 Aug. 2015. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

3Eating Disorders: About More Than Food.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.