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University Counseling Center

About Eating Disorders

Food is an integral part of our lives. The importance of food varies from individual to individual, but few people eat simply for nutrition or basic survival. Your cultural heritage, psychological and physiological makeup, and years of habit affect the ways you use food. Society bombards us with food propaganda and, at the same time, pressures to stay slender. Sometimes these conflicting messages lead to confusion, unrealistic expectations, and stress. Striving to control your body shape, size, and appearance through unhealthy means may lead to habitual cycles of food abuse and restriction which can have harmful/dangerous consequences.

Many factors can contribute to the development of eating disorders. The many underlying causes (including stress, body image issues, love issues, control issues) are all hidden, and what is actually seen is the eating disorder. For this reason eating disorders have often been referred to as the “tip of the iceberg”. All the underlying factors lie below the surface and the problems they create are manifested into a problem with food and eating behavior. Excessive dieting, binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting could indicate problems with body image, stress, family, school, food, etc. Brief episodes of food abuse during a crisis are common responses to stress in young people. Consistent abuse and inappropriate feelings and/or behaviors are reliable signs of more serious problems.

Eating disorders have received much media attention in the last few years and are still very common among teenage girls, young women and athletes. It is estimated that 25% of all college women engage in cycles of binge eating and purging, and 1-2 of every 100 teenage girls is anorexic.

An “eating disorder arc” helps you see where you are in eating habits. A “normal eater” can be defined as someone who eats only when hungry and stops when full. 97.6% of Americans do not fit this definition of a normal eater. This statistic is not meant to scare you, and this does not mean that most Americans have an eating disorder. What this means is that food plays a very important role in the American culture and most of us often eat for more reasons than to physiologically sustain our bodies. Eating is an important part of social events and holidays. It also is used as a source of love and/or comfort by some. We all exist somewhere on the eating disorder arc, therefore eating disorders are not an all or nothing issue. Many of us may not fit into the “normal eaters” category but have acceptable eating behaviors and are not at risk for developing an eating disorder. However, many people may need to examine their relationship with food and their individual eating pattern.

Eating Disorder Arc

Eating Disorder Arc


The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, but there is a broad spectrum of eating disorders. Any deviant way of using food to compensate for any psychological condition (happiness, sadness, depression, stress, anxiety, boredom, etc.) can be considered an eating disorder if it is harmful to the individual.


Anorexia is characterized by a morbid fear of fatness and leads to drastic dieting. Body weight is often kept at least 15% below normal and the absence of menstrual cycles is very common. Anorexics (and many others suffering from an eating disorder) develop a distorted view of their appearance. Although they are underweight, they still see themselves as fat and “feel fat”. As an anorexic begins to lose weight, they begin to feel powerful and in control.


Bulimia is characterized by episodes of binge eating and purging. The purging may take form as regular self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, strict dieting, and/or vigorous exercise. A binge is usually stopped by stomach pain, social interruption, sleep or induced vomiting. Bulimics generally feel ashamed and guilty because they are not able to control their eating.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (B.E.D.) is characterized by uncontrolled binge eating without extreme weight control behavior such as purging or starving. Warning signs may be difficult to notice, but will involve eating large amounts of food (generally sweet, high calorie foods with textures conducive to rapid eating, as with bulimia) and typically weight gain. Food may be used to satisfy emotional needs not being met otherwise, to soothe the pain of past abusive or neglectful experiences, or as a barrier against future psychological pain.


Obesity involves a body weight of greater than 20% of expected weight for age and height. When the result of behavioral influences such as stress, depression and peer activities, obesity can be considered an eating disorder. Some obese people are overeaters and may be eating to suppress problems and the psychological pain associated with them. Obesity may also be the result of damaged metabolism, lack of exercise and/or poor food choices, would not be considered an eating disorder, because food is not, being used to compensate for emotions or other psychological issues.

Female Athletic Triad

The Female Athletic Triad is another types of eating/lifestyle disorder. Some physically active women are at risk for a group of signs and symptoms involved in the Female Athletic Triad. Three medical conditions are combined: disordered eating, lack of menstrual periods (amenorrhea) and bone weakening (osteoporosis).

  • Disordered eating involves any of the following practices: anorexia, bulimia, anorexia or bulimia with excessive exercise and normal food intake with excessive exercise. Poor eating habits can lead to malnutrition and an inability to perform adequately in sports, class and everyday life. Lack of sufficient calorie intake can lead to complication such as fatigue, decreased immune system, and loss of concentration and clear thinking. As this disorder progresses, the complications grow more severe and could even be fatal.
  • Amenorrhea is the absence of menstrual cycles for more than 6 months. Normal hormonal cycles stop when normal body weight in not maintained. The hormonal system of the body is very complex therefore an imbalance in one part can keep may other parts from functioning properly. A “starved” body does not menstruate.
  • Osteoporosis is a loss of calcium from the bones. This leads to weak bones and ultimately fractures. Normal estrogen levels are necessary for the uptake of calcium to build strong healthy bones. When low body weight shuts off monthly periods, the amount of estrogen is inadequate for building and maintaining bone cells. A normal eating pattern may help the return of normal periods and help prevent further bone loss. But major bone loss cannot be recovered and for this reason, these women may live the rest of their lives with weakened bones.


How Could You Tell If Someone Might Have the Triad?

A woman at risk might:

  • exercise more than an hour/day
  • exercise compulsively (no skips, time)
  • exercise without a set training goal
  • restrict amounts and kinds of foods
  • eat alone most of the time
  • spend excessive time in the bathroom
  • seem depressed
  • eat differently from the people she shares meal with
  • eat a lot at some meals and very little at others
  • think and talk a lot about food, body fat, dietary fat and food-related topics
  • show a sudden change in academic achievement
  • experience frequent unexplained injuries
  • have problems with irregular or absent menstrual periods


Health Consequences of Eating Disorders

Besides eating disorders being indicative of psychological problems, they have serious physical implications. Physical symptoms of eating disorders vary from individual to individual. Some signs are: marked weight loss or weight gain, weight fluctuations of up to 10 pounds or more, amenorrhea, chronic sore throats or stomach problems, decay of tooth enamel, dizziness and/or fainting episodes, growth of fine baby-like hair on body, chronic fatigue, hair loss, dehydration, swollen cheeks, bloodshot eyes. In fact, 6%-10% of anorexic and bulimic patients die as a result of starvation, cardiac arrest or suicide. The severe malnutrition that accompanies some eating disorders causes undue stress on many different parts of the body. Eating disorders can lead to: weakening of the bones, irregular heart beat, rupture of the stomach, infertility, organ failure, cardiac arrest.

Other problems resulting from anorexia and bulimia: dry, thin hair; brittle nails; cold, blue hands and feet; broken blood vessels in eyes and face. Other problems resulting from binge eating disorder: stress to body from weight fluctuation of over 10 pounds can lead to obesity which increases the risk of heart disease and other health problems.


Prevention is the best line of defense. The best way to guard against an eating disorder or the triad is to be REALISTIC. Develop a sense of what is a normal, healthy, active female body looks like. Avoid the distorted images displayed in the media. Do not expect unreasonable or impossible goals onto your body. Do not risk your future health and success for the sake of one competition or social event. Learn to accept yourself for the individual that you are.

Where to Get Help

The good news is that there is help available for these disorders. People can recover and lead happy healthy lives. If you feel you or someone you know may have a problem, seek professional advice as soon as possible. The longer one goes without seeking help, the harder and longer the healing process. Recovery takes commitment, time and hard work. Therapy is almost always necessary as well as behavior modification and education.