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What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are defined by three primary characteristics: unhealthy or unnatural dietary practices, an intense preoccupation with weight and physical appearance, and an inability to control food consumption behavior.

Many people attempt to make changes in their diets as a way to lose a few pounds or overcome chronic obesity. Many of these individuals also turn to exercise to help them reach their weight loss goals.

But when carried to an extreme, frequent dieting can lead to food and exercise obsessions and eventually to an eating disorder. For eating disorder victims food becomes the enemy as well as the center of their existence, turning one of the most naturally pleasurable experiences in the world (eating) into a source of distress and misery.

What are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?

These are the four categories of eating disorder:

Anorexia nervosa
Victims of anorexia nervosa are so obsessed with losing weight they are reluctant to eat anything at all, and when they exercise they will do so to the point of exhaustion. No matter how thin and emaciated they become, when they look in the mirror they will remain dissatisfied, convinced they’re still overweight and unattractive. In their never-ending quest for perfection (as they define it), anorexia sufferers will continue to deprive themselves of calories and nutrients, seemingly oblivious to how badly they’re damaging their health.

Eating disorders cause more premature death than any other type of mental illness, and anorexia nervosa is responsible for a significant majority of these fatalities.

Bulimia nervosa
Like anorexia victims men and women suffering from bulimia nervosa are intensely preoccupied with their weight. But instead of denying themselves they will frequently consume massive quantities of food in a single sitting, after which they will use various methods to induce vomiting or diarrhea to rid their bodies of the excess calories. As their obsession grows they may start purging more frequently, even when no binging has occurred.

These practices are ruinous to their health and don’t actually help bulimia sufferers lose weight. But without intervention they will continue their binging and purging habits indefinitely, driven by a powerful compulsion they find almost impossible to resist.

Binge eating disorder (BED)
Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia in that its victims will consume enormous quantities of food in a short period of time, spurred by an overwhelming compulsion that takes control of their lives. But BED sufferers don’t rely on purging to counteract the effects of their excessive calorie consumption, which explains why two-thirds of those who suffer from this disorder are clinically obese.

Episodes of binging must occur at least once a week for a period of three or more months before BED can be officially diagnosed.

Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)

The OSFED label is reserved for eating conditions that don’t quite fit the other categories but still cause a great deal of emotional distress. Some examples of OSFED conditions include:

  • Anorexic eating behavior not accompanied by significant weight loss.
  • Relatively infrequent bulimia nervosa-style binging and purging.
  • Purging behavior with no binging.
  • Semi-regular binge eating.
  • Excessive nighttime food consumption.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

In the early stages of an eating disorder you may have difficulty identifying the troublesome attitudes and behavior, in yourself or in others. Dieting is common and everyone becomes preoccupied with their weight, health and appearance from time to time.

Here are some symptoms to watch for that will let you know when calorie-counting has transformed into something more worrisome:

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Sudden, dramatic weight loss.
  • Topics related to food and calorie consumption becoming a constant focus of conversation.
  • Rejection of entire food categories for apparently arbitrary reasons (not because they’re unhealthy).
  • A failure to be pleased or satisfied by success in losing weight.
  • Odd or unusual food rituals or routines.
  • Making excuses to miss meals.
  • Exercising without restraint, even when feeling ill or after suffering an injury.
  • Defensiveness or even hostility when asked about possibly excessive weight loss.

Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Large quantities of food disappearing from the home.
  • Secretive eating, either late at night or while alone.
  • Regular use of purging agents (laxatives, diuretics, enemas, etc.)
  • Stained or discolored teeth.
  • Facial swelling, especially near the mouth.
  • Alternating weight gain and weight loss.
  • Constant talk about dieting and weight.
  • Irregular eating habits, changing meal times or skipping meals altogether.

Binge Eating Disorder:

    • Eating beyond the point of feeling full, even after experiencing physical discomfort.
    • Stealing, hiding or hoarding food.
    • Frequent skipping of meals without any sign of weight loss.
    • Repeated fasting or dieting.
    • Lifestyle adjustments that create more time for binge eating.
    • Constant expressions of dissatisfaction over weight or body shape.

The Health Consequences of an Eating Disorder

Anorexia is generally considered the most hazardous type of eating disorder, and that reputation is well-deserved. Prolonged calorie deprivation is a form of malnutrition that can have a devastating effect on the human body.

If you suffer from anorexia nervosa, you are at risk of:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Osteoporosis
  • Significant muscle loss
  • Chronic dehydration
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Fainting
  • Interruption of menstruation
  • Infertility
  • Insomnia
  • Thinning or falling hair
  • Constipation
  • Anemia
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure

The unnatural food consumption practices and traumatic purging incidents that define bulimia nervosa have a devastating long-term effect on the body.

If left untreated bulimia nervosa can cause:

  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Inflammation or rupture of the esophagus
  • Acid reflux disease
  • Tooth decay
  • Irregularity and/or constipation
  • Depression
  • Peptic ulcers, pancreatitis
  • Gastric rupture

Binge eating is a cause of obesity and all the physical and emotional health problems that go with it. Those who are unable to control their binging face an elevated risk for:

  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Type II diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Chronic joint pain, arthritis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Depression and anxiety disorders
  • Cancer (breast, colon, liver, kidney)


What are the Predictors of an Eating Disorder?


While these factors don’t necessarily cause eating disorders to develop (in some cases they may be effects rather than causes), they are common among those who suffer from these conditions.

  • Imbalances in neurochemicals connected to hunger, digestion and appetite.
  • A genetic tendency to perfectionism.
  • Family history (a parent or sibling who suffered from an eating disorder).
  • A previous history of depression or anxiety disorder.
  • Low self-esteem that originated in childhood.
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality traits.
  • Loneliness and social isolation.
  • Excessive exposure to cultural influences that glorify thinness and physical beauty.
  • Troubled personal relationships.
  • History of being teased or bullied.
  • Difficulty in expressing emotion.
  • Previous exposure to serious trauma (physical or sexual abuse).


Statistics on Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Women of all ages comprise 60 percent, 80 percent and 90 percent of binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa sufferers respectively.

(National Comorbidity Survey)

Over 50 percent of teen girls and 30 percent of teen boys will use unhealthy weight control practices at some point (i.e., smoking, fasting, purging, etc.).

(Journal of Pediatric Psychiatry)

Approximately 20 percent of all “normal” dieters will eventually develop some type of eating disorder.

(International Journal of Eating Disorders)

Men and women with eating disorders are 4-5 times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than the general population.

((The Journal of) Addictive Behaviors)

Why Do Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Occur Together?

Approximately half of all eating disorder victims have a history of substance abuse, either simultaneously with or prior to the development anorexia, bulimia, BED or OSFED.

In some instances the use of drugs or alcohol may be a coping mechanism designed to relieve the stress, guilt and embarrassment that eating disorder sufferers feel. But other times those with eating disorders will begin drinking or using certain drugs because they believe those substances will suppress their appetites, speed up their metabolism or give them more stamina for exercise.

Ultimately both substance abuse and eating disorders thrive where self-esteem and a positive self-image are lacking. Chemical dependency may be the result when those who feel lost, helpless and alone turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to escape from their feelings of inadequacy.

Treating an Eating Disorder/Substance Abuse Dual Diagnosis

When an eating disorder or substance abuse problem reaches the crisis stage, hospitalization in the former case and detox is the latter may be required. Serious physical complications can result from either type of illness and those situations will always take first priority.

Once the patient’s condition has stabilized, he or she will be enrolled in an integrated treatment program specially designed for those with a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and a mental health disorder. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, physicians, nurses and addiction treatment counselors may all be asked to contribute to the development of the healing plan, depending on the unique circumstances of the patient’s situation.

Each person’s program for recovery from co-occurring disorders will include diverse services like individual psychotherapy, peer group meetings, family therapy, lifestyle improvement courses and various health-promoting activities patients can continue to practice after their stints in rehab are finished. Nutritional counseling is often added to treatment program involving an eating disorder, since it is vital that men and women in recovery adopt substantially different dietary habits to support their healing process.

Because self-esteem issues lie at the root of addiction and eating disorders, much of the counseling patients receive will place great emphasis on rebuilding their sense of empowerment and self-respect.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Services at FootPrints BHC

If you come to a FootPrints Behavioral Health Center to get treatment for both an eating disorder and drug or alcohol addiction, you will be in good, skilled and caring hands.

A multi-disciplinary team of health care professionals will watch over you throughout your entire stay. Following hospitalization and detox (if you need them) you’ll receive the highest-quality, evidence-based dual diagnosis treatment services available. Your healing regimen will be individually customized and completely coordinated to make sure your eating disorder is acknowledged and addressed as aggressively and compassionately as your substance abuse issues.

During individual, group and family therapy you’ll strive to uncover the true reasons for your unhealthy and self-destructive behavior. You’ll also receive daily access to highly-effective mind-body healing techniques that will aid you tremendously as you seek personal transcendence and transformation. Our nutritional healing and therapy services should be especially helpful and productive, as you attempt to move beyond your history of dysfunctional eating.


At FootPrints BHC we’ll show you how to embrace a healthy and life-affirming approach to problem-solving and stress management. We’ll help you cultivate the positive energy and unconquerable attitude of hope you need to make a lasting recovery from your co-occurring disorders.

– Nick Russie, Co-Founder


Leaving a Troubled Past Behind

Overcoming an eating disorder complicated by substance abuse is one of the toughest challenges you will ever have to face. But with hope, courage and a determined effort you can emerge clean, sober, healthy and triumphant.

FootPrints BHC is here to help you get your life (or the life of your loved one) back on track. Working together, we can change your dual diagnosis from a life-defining reality to a passing moment in time.




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