What is an Eating Disorder?

By Licia Ginne, LMFT

Eating disorders are complicated and like other mental and emotional disorders the descriptions you find about them in books may not be how you or a loved one experiences the disorder. The intense fear of gaining weight can be as strong as the fear or panic that comes from not allowing yourself to indulge in food as an emotional support. For the eating disordered person self worth and self-esteem increase or decrease according to how you feel about your body on any given day, how your clothes fit or don’t fit, how you think others react to you and how you react to yourself.

Feeling out of control in your life can lead to trying to control the only thing you feel you have control over, your body. It can be the restriction of foods, control over intake or the consumption of foods that can lead to a feeling of calm and relief.

Eating disorders can include overeating, purging (laxatives, vomiting or chewing and spitting), not eating, rigid eating rules, compulsive exercise and any combination of the above. It also includes a disconnected relationship with your body, hunger and satiation, self-loathing and a distorted view of size and shape.

What all people with eating disorders will say is that they are tortured by the constant thoughts of food, obsession with weight, body image, and how they feel the need to hide their behaviors. A common reaction to recovery is the great sigh of relief as food’s role in your life shifts from being obsessive to the necessary tool for fueling your body.

Eating disorders effect your emotional and physical well being, can cause chronic physical illness and in extreme cases lead to death. The shame and obsession that comes with an eating disorder gets in the way of normal functioning; fear of socializing, fear of commitment and anxiety about being found out can keep you a prisoner in your own life. It has also been found that there is a higher incidence of self-mutilation found among women who have eating disorders.

There are three main types of eating disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating (and any combination of these). These are complex disorders focusing on issues of eating, body weight, and body shape. Disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder. It is important to identify eating habits and change them before they become severe.

The web sitesomething-fishy.org is the most comprehensive site I have found about eating disorders. I would encourage you to go to their web site for more information.


A person consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time (less than 2 hours), but does not engage in purging behavior. This eating is without regard to physical cues such as hunger or satisfaction. The individual loses the power of choice over food. Driven by forces they don’t quite understand or even recognize, they eat more than they need.


A person will eat a large quantity of food in a short period of time and then purge themselves of the food by some method such as by vomiting, laxatives, chewing and spitting or intense exercising.


In anorexia the person has an unrealistic view of their body, sees and fears being overweight (panics about weight). They restrict their food intake, maintain a restricted food plan and have an unrealistic view of calories and how their bodies metabolize food. There is an intense fear of gaining weight and becoming obese.

The reason I previously said eating disorders are complicated is that these definitions should not be taken as a way to decide if you have an eating disorder. Those with eating disorders may cross lines and engage in any or all of the above behaviors. It is common to see someone who will engage in compulsive eating and then try to restrict or starve themselves for a period of time. Psychotherapy alone is not enough support for eating-disordered concerns. It is advisable to work with a nutritionist to challenge some of the myths and misconceptions associated with food and dieting, with a support group, and have psychotherapy.

Like all addictions or compulsive behavior it is important to look at how these behaviors affect your social, physical, emotional, spiritual and relationship life. Here is a link to a new article in the LA Times about the brain connection to food addiction and its similarity to alcohol addiction.LA Times Food Addicton

It is possible to develop a new relationship with food that does not consume your every waking moment, it is possible to find peace in your relationship with food and to your body.

One approach to treatment is the use of 12-step programs,Overeaters Anonymous, is one program and you find support groups for free or a small donation.