There is a common misconception that people with eating disorders choose these behaviors, but eating disorders are serious and potentially fatal illnesses. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point during their lifetime.

In recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, WVU Medicine bariatric psychologist Stephanie Cox, PhD, shines a spotlight on eating disorders, and addresses facts and warning signs.

What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are conditions that are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors that negatively impact a person’s physical health, mental wellbeing, and quality of life. Types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (starvation), bulimia (overeating with purging), and binge-eating disorder (overeating without purging).

Dr. Stephanie Cox

What are the symptoms of eating disorders?
Those with anorexia nervosa restrict food intake, which leads to a significantly low weight, intense fear of weight gain, and distorted body image/self-esteem that is overly influenced by weight and shape.

People with bulimia may experience episodes of consuming large quantities of food followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as vomiting or exercising too much, and their self-esteem is overly influenced by weight and shape.

Binge eating disorder symptoms include episodes of consuming large quantities of food and a loss of control during eating, including eating rapidly, eating until uncomfortably full, eating when not hungry, eating alone because of embarrassment about eating, and feeling shame and disgust about eating.

Additional feeding or eating disorders include:

  • purging disorder (vomiting after a small or normal-sized meal)
  • night eating syndrome (a delayed pattern of food intake)
  • avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
  • pica (eating things, like dirt, that are not food)
  • rumination disorder (rechewing partially digested food)

What are some of the misconceptions about eating disorders?

  • When you hear the term eating disorder, the first image that may come to mind may be someone who is severely underweight, as in the case of anorexia nervosa. However, many other disordered eating conditions exist.
  • Disordered eating conditions have a wide range of severity and impact. Just because a person has a relatively normal weight does not mean that they cannot suffer from a serious eating disorder. If a person is underweight or overweight, it does not mean that they experience disordered eating.
  • Eating disorders are not a diet, fad, or lifestyle choice. These conditions are real medical and emotional illnesses.
  • Eating disorders are much more than just difficulty with food. For those suffering from an eating disorder, food or the control of food can be a way of coping with painful thoughts and emotions that may otherwise be overwhelming.

What causes eating disorders?
Eating disorders are complex conditions that may result from the combination of biological/ genetic, psychological, and social factors. For example, you may be at increased risk if you have a first-degree relative with an eating disorder. Weight concerns, low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and anxiety can also be risk factors. Body image dissatisfaction can also be a significant contributor to developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are more prevalent in social settings and cultures in which thinness is valued.

How are eating disorders treated?
Recovery from disordered eating is possible. Early diagnosis and treatment allows for the best chance for recovery. Treatment for eating disorders includes talk therapy and medication, along with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. The type of treatment, length, and intensity of treatment will vary depending on the nature and severity of the eating disorder. If you or someone you know may be experiencing issues related to eating, it's important to talk to someone about how you are feeling and reach out for help.

Make an appointment: 855-WVU-CARE