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Eating Disorders 101

Eating disorders include serious and extreme attitudes, behaviors, and emotions surrounding weight and eating issues. They have serious emotional and physical consequences. An eating disorder can affect anyone regardless of sex, gender identity, race, class, or sexual orientation. The most common element in all eating disorders is low self-esteem. A person does not need to have all of the signs or symptoms to have a particular eating disorder and to need help and a person can have a combination of eating disorders at one time. And, it is not always obvious that someone has an eating disorder.

Disordered eating refers to mild and temporary changes in eating patterns that occur in relation to a stressful event, an illness, or some other reason. Disordered eating does not lead to significant mental, social, health, school or work problems and rarely causes major medical complications. If disordered eating is not dealt with it can become more serious, cause many problems and eventually lead to a full eating disorder.


The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, compulsive overeating, binge eating, and compulsive exercising.

Anorexia Nervosa

Emotional signs can include fear of becoming fat, fear of losing control, and feeling undeserving of pleasure in life.

Behavioral signs can include obsessive exercising, calorie or fat counting, starvation, use of pills, laxatives, and diuretics to control weight, hiding and throwing away food, and persistent concern for body image.

Physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can include weight loss, loss of menstruation in women, hair loss, dizziness, headaches, low blood pressure, often feeling cold, mood swings, loss of sexual desire, depression, fatigue and insomnia.

Bulimia Nervosa

Emotional signs can include being overwhelmed by emotions, hiding feelings of anger, depression, stress or anxiety, and feeling of lacking control over eating behaviors.

Behavioral signs include repeated episodes of bingeing (consuming large quantities of food) and purging (self-induced vomiting, abuse of diuretics, laxatives or pills, excessive exercise or fasting). Behaviors can also include frequent dieting and hiding food to eat later.

Compulsive Overeating

Emotional signs can include feelings of shame, self-hatred, guilt, hiding from emotions, and feeling a "void" inside.

Behavioral signs can include having an "addiction" to food, uncontrolled or impulsive eating, using food as a coping mechanism, eating until uncomfortably full and having obsessive cycles of eating.

Physical symptoms of compulsive overeating and binge eating can include weight gain, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, leg and joint pain, loss of sexual desire, mood swings, depression, fatigue and insomnia.

Binge Eating

Emotional signs are similar to those of compulsive overeating.

Behavioral signs are also similar to those of compulsive overeating, but occur in binge-episodes, or eating a large amount of food within a certain amount of time. During the binge episode, food is usually eaten rapidly and episodes generally occur about two days a week or more.

Compulsive Exercising

Emotional signs include needing to exercise at any cost, feeling of tremendous guilt when unable to exercise, needing a temporary sense of power or control, and trying to relieve feelings of guilt through purging.

Behavioral signs include excessive exercise, missing obligations in order to exercise, feeling no satisfaction from achievements or victories, always thinking of next physical activity, and rarely exercising for fun but rather as a form of self-punishment.

Physical symptoms of compulsive exercising include dehydration, stress fractures, reproductive problems, heart problems, electrolyte imbalances, arthritis and difficulty sleeping even though tired.


There is no single cause for eating disorders. Some factors that are considered contributors to eating disorders include low self-esteem, media portrayal of bodies, societal and cultural emphasis on looks, comments on a person's size and weight, confusion of food with emotions, loss of sense of hunger, as well as physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Not everyone with eating disorder experiences all, or necessarily any, of these causes, but all of these factors have been correlated with eating disorders.

The Wrap

You can help to raise awareness about eating disorders by portraying characters who:

  • Think that they have an eating disorder. The characters could find someone that they feel comfortable with and talk to them about it. They could also talk to a counselor or a doctor and seek help. Also, try incorporate the fact that the longer they wait, the harder it will be.
  • Think that someone they know has an eating disorder. The characters should help their friends/family members find professional assistance if they are willing. They should be supportive and validate their feelings. They should NOT reinforce their poor image of themselves by saying negative things about their looks or their behavior. The characters should also let their the people with the eating disorder know that they care about them and that they believe that they deserve help in dealing with this disorder.

    Some storylines may portray how another "fact" of knowing someone with an eating disorders. Even if the characters try hard to help someone they cares about, if the other person is not ready or does not want to seek treatment, there may be very little they can do for him/her.

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