Published On: Jul 2, 2021|Categories: Eating Disorder Information|

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is defined as a condition characterized by abnormal eating habits, along with the potential to have serious physical, mental, social and emotional impacts.

Common types of eating disorders and their characteristics include:

  • Anorexia nervosa, characterized by the extreme dieting restriction of food intake. Individuals may also experience intense fear of gaining weight, body dysmorphia, obsessive thoughts over their weight and body type and lack of recognition of the severity of their health condition if underweight or malnourished.
  • Bulimia nervosa, characterized by episodes of binge eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time followed by episodes of purging or otherwise attempting to prevent weight gain. Purging activities can include self-induced vomiting after meals, using laxatives or diuretics, and excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating disorder, characterized by eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time, and oftentimes eating alone to this effect, to the point of feeling uncomfortably full. The individual often feels a lack of control to stop their binges, followed by feeling guilt or shame after they have binged.
  • Orthorexia, characterized by an obsessive fixation on eating healthy foods in a way that restricts eating to very limited foods and is disruptive to daily life.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED), characterized by any symptom that indicates disordered eating that has the potential for adverse physical, mental and social impacts but do not meet the diagnostic criteria of any other defined eating disorder.
  • Rumination disorder, characterized by the repeated process of chewing, regurgitating, re-chewing and re-swallowing or spitting out food. Unlike most of the other defined eating disorders, rumination disorder is thought to be reflexive and compulsive rather than a conscious decision.
  • Pica, characterized by the eating of nonfood substances that provide no nutritional value like wood, paper, hair or paint chips.
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, characterized by any type of disruption to eating like lack of interest in food, avoiding certain foods due to sensory issues and seeking nutritional value from vitamins and supplements rather than food. Symptoms include failure to thrive and severe malnutrition.

Is an eating disorder a mental illness?

Eating disorders are, categorically, mental illnesses. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the field’s authority on identifying and diagnosing mental illnesses. DSM-5 provides clear definitions and diagnostic criteria for a number of eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and OSFED. This is a cogent indication that eating disorders are among the mental illnesses currently defined by the psychiatric and medical fields. 

Why are eating disorders classified as mental illnesses?

Both the terms “eating disorder” and “mental illness” are somewhat regulated in the medical field. The American Psychiatric Association defines a mental illness as a condition that leads to significant changes in thinking or behaving, as well as distress when functioning in daily social, occupational and familial roles. When considering the eating disorders recognized in the DSM-5, their fulfillment of this criteria is apparent. Anorexia nervosa, for example, is in part characterized by obsessively worrying about gaining weight and adapting behavior — i.e., restricting food intake — to avoid weight gain. The side effects of anorexia nervosa, like weakness, malnutrition and organ failure, can lead to the individual missing obligations with their friends, family and job.

Can eating disorders be treated?

Are eating disorders a mental illness? Yes. Does that mean they cannot be treated or ever go away? Absolutely not.

Depression, for example, can be treated through medication, therapy or a combination of the two. Substance use disorder can be treated through medication-assisted treatment and a subsequent intensive outpatient program. Eating disorders can be treated in the same way, and treatment can greatly improve the quality of life due to its holistic nature. Eating disorder treatment will tackle the root of the ways of thinking behind the eating disorder, teach techniques for loving and nourishing the body, and concurrently, rehabilitate the body to recover from the eating disorder and teach healthy eating habits for moving forward. 

Seeds of Hope understands that eating disorders are mental illnesses and must be treated and cared for as such. For both teens and adults, we offer partial hospitalization programs and intensive outpatient programs that are customized to the individual, their needs, and their schedules. Programming can include group and individual therapy, recreational therapy including art and music therapies, nutrition classes and communal meals. Get help for you or someone you love and give us a call at 610-644-6464.

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