Roughly a million Australians have an eating disorder—around 4% of the population.1 The condition is most common in adolescents and young women but can affect people from every gender and age group.
In this article, we explore the definition of eating disorders, the most common types of eating disorders, and how you can seek treatment.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a mental illness that causes unhealthy and potentially dangerous eating habits. Depending on the type of eating disorder, these habits include restricting food intake, binge eating, vomiting, and over-exercising.
Eating disorders are complex psychological conditions that are influenced by a variety of factors. A person’s genetics may make them more susceptible to eating disorders, which includes the average levels of dopamine and serotonin in their brains3, and having personality traits such as neuroticism and disagreeableness4. Beauty standards are also a factor, especially for women. These toxic standards are often impossible for women to reach, which can create unhealthy relationships with food, and if the problem isn’t addressed, an eating disorder may develop.
Eating nutritious food on a regular basis is vital for our health, which is why eating disorders are so serious. They can lead to dangerous health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as other mental health issues like depression, anxiety, self injury, and OCD. In fact, over 80% of adults with an eating disorder have at least one more psychiatric disorder, which shows the relationship between eating disorders and mental health, and why talking to a psychotherapist may be recommended as part of a treatment plan (more on this later).
Types of eating disorders
There are four main types of eating disorders, and a few rarer types such as pica, rumination disorder, purging disorder, and night eating syndrome. You can find out more information about these with a quick Google search.
Binge eating disorder
People who suffer from binge eating disorder have a tendency to eat large amounts of food in one sitting, at least once a week. They may feel as though they can’t control themselves, and the binges are often accompanied and followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing, which can contribute to poor mental health and make them hide their behaviour.
As you might expect, binge eating usually leads to obesity and related health issues like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. As with every eating disorder, it can be tough to figure out the various causes, which might be mental health issues like low self-esteem, and paradoxically, dissatisfaction with body shape (they feel depressed about their weight, so they binge eat for comfort).
Binge eating disorder is the most common type of eating disorder in Australia. It affects about 47% of people who suffer from an eating disorder—about half a million Australians1
As with binge eating disorder, bulimia sufferers eat massive amounts of food in short periods of time and do so regularly. But instead of retaining the calories, they purge them from their bodies in a variety of ways, like vomiting, taking laxatives, weight-loss supplements, or diuretics, or giving themselves an enema. Purging might also be done through fasting, dieting, or excessive exercising.
As with binge eating disorder, people with bulimia may struggle to control their binges and subsequent purges. It’s usually caused by not liking how you look, particularly your weight or body shape. By throwing up your calories, you’re able to gain a small sense of control over your weight, but at the cost of your overall health, which can be severe. This condition may also be caused by other factors like your genetics.
In Australia, about 38% of people with an eating disorder suffer from bulimia1.
Anorexia is one of the rarest eating disorders, but by far the deadliest—about 20% of people with anorexia end up dying2.
People with anorexia severely restrict the amount of food they eat, which can lead to dangerously low body weight and a severe lack of nutrients. As with bulimia, the condition is often caused by a negative self-image, but may be considered much more intense. Anorexia sufferers place immense value on controlling their weight and body shape, which leads to a crippling fear of gaining weight through food. As you may expect, anorexia is usually caused by underlying mental issues, which may be due to emotional trauma or a chaotic environment.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (formerly known as Selective Eating Disorder)
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is characterised by a lack of interest in food. This is sometimes colloquially known as being a “picky eater,” but as with other eating disorders, can lead to significant weight loss, inadequate nutritional intake, and serious health problems as a result. Sufferers might experience constipation, stomach pain, lethargy, dizziness, sleep issues, and more.
ARFID isn’t usually related to anxiety around body shape or size, which can make it more difficult to treat. There may be a negative mental association with eating and vomiting or eating and choking, but every case is different.
Eating disorder treatments
Due to the complex psychological and physical causes for the eating disorders, and the damage that they cause to the body, eating disorder treatments may be carried out by health professionals from a variety of fields. These include:
A psychotherapist may help the patient to work through any underlying psychological issues that may be causing the mental illness. This might include techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or family-based therapy. They can also help to resolve the eating disorder itself by learning how to monitor your moods and eating habits, and develop problem-solving skills.
If the psychotherapist believes you may benefit from medication, they may refer you to a psychiatrist.
A dietitian or nutritionist can help to educate the person on the medical and nutritional issues that come from eating disorders. They can also help them to develop a healthy eating plan, and give them strategies for sticking with it.
A doctor may monitor the person’s physical health, such as their BMI, blood pressure, blood testing, and more. If their health has gotten bad enough, the person may require hospitalisation, to stabilise acute medical symptoms and nurse them to a better state.
If the eating disorder has affected the person’s teeth (e.g. through repeated vomiting), dentists can help to repair them.
If you suspect you have an eating disorder, your doctor is your first port of call. They’ll be able to assess your concerns and refer you to other health professionals if necessary.
Eating disorders summary
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can lead to extremely poor health or death in extreme cases. But they are 100% treatable with the right care.
- Eating Disorders in Australia, National Eating Disorders Collaboration
- What is Anorexia: Symptoms, Complications & Causes, Eating Disorder Hope
- Temperament and Personality, NEDA
- Abigail S. Dubovi, BA, Yue Li, MS, Jessica L. Martin, PhD, Breaking the Silence: Disordered Eating and Big Five Traits in College Men – Abigail S. Dubovi, Yue Li, Jessica L. Martin, 2016, American Journal of Men’s Health