ABCs of Eating and Eating Disorders

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The Food and Drug Administration advises that a proper diet consists of whole grains, lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and lower amounts of fats, carbohydrates, and sugars. However, there is a fine line between healthy eating behaviors and those eating behaviors that may border into eating disturbances.

In today’s world, western societies are characterized by a weight-obsessed culture, a culture that says, in countless ways, “fat is bad,” and which pressures women and, every day, more men to be “always dieting.” Those living in such weight-obsessed cultures are at risk of developing maladaptive eating patterns that affect psychosocial, physical, and cognitive functioning. But how can you tell when your eating patterns are becoming a problem? Here are a few scenarios to look out for:

  • Most of your thoughts revolve around food: It’s normal to think about food throughout the day. However, it becomes an issue when these thoughts become pervasive, negative, and cause distress.
  • Your self-esteem is highly dependent on body shape and weight: Another indicator is when food choices are significantly intertwined with self-worth. For instance, feeling like a failure after consuming something beyond what’s considered “healthy.”
  • Eating in public causes distress: People with eating disturbances often feel shame and guilt when eating in social settings. Thus, some may opt to eat in secrecy and eventually become socially withdrawn.
  • Feeling a lack of control around food: Sometimes, food is used to cope with negative emotions. Compulsive overeating may result in the development of binge-eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.
  • Your eating habits are interfering with your functioning: If your eating habits interfere with your overall health and daily life, it may be time to consult with a professional.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are severe and persistent disturbances in eating behavior patterns and body weight perception. Often, eating disorders co-occur with other psychiatric disorders and increased mortality rates due to both medical complications — such as organ failure — and suicide. General statistics indicate:

  • It is estimated that 5 to 10% of the U.S. population will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime
  • The median age of an eating disorder onset ranges from 15 to 25 years old
  • The prevalence of eating disorders among female college students ranges from 9% to 13% and from 3% to 4% among males
  • Eating disorders are among the deadliest psychiatric diagnoses, with approximately 10,200 deaths per year

Most Common Eating Disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa mortality is the highest of all psychiatric disorders. Its symptoms include reduction of food intake that leads to significantly low body weight; relentless pursuit of thinness; intense fear of gaining weight; disturbed body weight or shape perception; persistent body evaluation, such as weighing, body part measuring, and mirror-checking; and denial or lack of insight of being underweight.
  • Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge-eating or overeating; recurrent compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise; and persistent body evaluation.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder involves recurrent episodes of binge-eating. Binge-eating episodes typically include eating faster than average, consuming large amounts of food, eating alone, and feelings of guilt, depression, and disgust with oneself during the episode.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns or experience any symptoms.

A wide range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors may be linked to the development of an eating disorder. While the identification with these factors may not necessarily predict an eating disorder, the higher the presence of these factors, the higher risk of developing an eating disorder. These factors include:

  • Having a close relative with an eating disorder
  • History of dieting
  • Body image dissatisfaction
  • Perfectionism as a personality trait
  • History of trauma
  • Teasing or bullying
  • Weight stigma
  • Acculturation

Research findings indicate that university students, women, athletes, sexual minority individuals, and racial and ethnic minority groups are at a heightened risk for an eating disorder. Moreover, racial and ethnic minority groups may experience unique stressors that disproportionately impact their eating habits, which may be related cultural factors, like parental expectations, or systemic factors like poverty and racism.

Eating disorders are serious disorders that can impair your psychological state, severely impact health, and, if untreated, can be lethal. Talk to a professional health provider if you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms. Visit the sources below for more information about eating disorders and for mental health resources.

National Eating Disorders Organization: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline

ANAD Support Group: https://anad.org/

Eating Disorders ANAD Hotline: (888) 375-7767

Texas Tropical Behavioral Health Crisis Hotline: 1-877-289-7199

Co-authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Maria Sevilla-Matos, Frances Morales, Andy Torres, Amanda Palomin and Dr. Alfonso Mercado.

Dr. Alfonso Mercado