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Why Eating Disorders Are More Common Than You Think

Why Eating Disorders Are More Common Than You Think

Addiction is a vast and complex disorder that we are still learning much about. For example, addiction used to be confined solely to being physically and psychologically dependent on an actual substance, like heroin or alcohol. But after decades of research and discovery, we now know that there are many different types of addictions that don’t necessarily have to involve a physical dependency on an actual drug. Eating disorders, for example, are one type of behavioral addiction that many people suffer from. In fact, it’s probably even more common than you think.

What Is the Definition of a Behavioral Addiction?

Before we jump into just how widespread eating disorders have become, let’s first take a closer look at what a behavioral addiction really is. In its most clinical terms, a behavioral addiction (or process addiction) is a type of compulsion that drives individuals to commit rewarding behaviors despite the detrimental consequences such behaviors may carry. If it sounds similar to being addicted to a physical drug, that’s because it is. Just as abusing cocaine or heroin produces a burst of pleasure-causing chemicals that flood the brain and its receptors, so too do certain behaviors trigger this same kind of chemical joy. And as we perform these behaviors repeatedly, we continue to receive these bursts of natural reward.

Creating A Pattern of Behaviors

Think of it as a path in the woods. Every time the path gets used, the more visible it becomes. And when there’s a worn-down path to follow, travelers are more likely to use it than some other route. The more you engage in a pleasurable action then, the more your brain becomes hardwired to crave that action. This is the foundation of becoming addicted to a substance as well as a particular behavior. So, just as you might be compelled to use a particular drug, you can also be driven to engage in certain behaviors like compulsive gambling, stealing, sexual intercourse, destructive eating habits, or even exercise. It becomes an addiction when you continually perform such behaviors even when they begin to damage your personal life, whether it be physically, psychologically, financially, socially, or emotionally. The definition of an eating disorder, then, is a psychological disorder that’s characterized by consistent, abnormal eating habits which may result in a detriment to an individual’s quality of life.

The Three Types of Eating Disorders

While many behavioral addictions have yet to be incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), experts generally agree eating disorders can be broken down into three distinct but occasionally overlapping categories:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge Eating disorder (BED)

Each of the disorders listed above is real medical illnesses that can result in a host of adverse physical, emotional, social, and psychological effects. It should also be mentioned that all of these disorders are treatable. But just as with a substance abuse disorder, it often takes the help and guidance of a qualified professional to overcome an eating disorder. That’s why it’s important to know the ins and outs of each – so you can be better equipped to identify such a disorder in yourself or in someone you care about.

Who Develops Eating Disorders – Breaking Down the Stereotype

Despite the common misconception that only upper-class women tend to develop eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, and BED affect people of every class, gender, and ethnic background. In fact, eating disorders among males have grown in number significantly, due in part to the same media portrayals and sexual objectification that influence eating disorders in women. While it is true that women develop such disorders at a disproportionate rate, studies show that a surprising 10 million men will develop a clinical eating disorder at some time in their life. It’s key, then, to recognize that a significant number of men will also suffer from these disorders.

How Common Are Eating Disorders?

Here are just a few more statistics to put the prevalence of eating disorders into better perspective:

  • At least 30 million U.S. citizens suffer from an eating disorder, and that’s at the low end of estimates.
  • Eating disorders have been shown to affect all races and ethnic groups.
  • Around 1 out of 100 American women suffer from anorexia nervosa during their lifetime.
  • 1.5% of women in the United States suffer from bulimia during their life.
  • An astounding 2.8% of U.S. adults have had a binge eating disorder.
  • At least one person dies every 62 minutes directly from an eating disorder.
  • 2.1% of men and 3.5% of women in the sexual minority have had an eating disorder.
  • Anorexia and bulimia are largely genetic, accounting for 50-80% of the risk.
  • Active duty military personnel are particularly at risk for eating disorders. At the beginning of one study, 4% of men and 5.5% of women had an eating disorder, a number which jumped to 6.6% of men and 8.8% of women within a few years of continued service.

It seems pretty clear, then, that while eating disorders may not be talked about very often, they are a lot more common than most people would like to believe.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Eating disorders also have a tendency to occur alongside other disorders as well, especially when it comes to substance use disorders. For example, almost 10% of BED and bulimia sufferers have been shown to have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder, most oftentimes alcohol. Part of this correlation may have to do with the appetite suppression that sometimes comes with alcohol abuse. Other substances like stimulants have the side effect of reducing appetite as well, putting them in danger of being abused by sufferers of anorexia and possibly bulimia. Additionally, eating disorders may actually develop during the recovery process. Sometimes sufferers of addiction will, in a sense, “trade” one compulsion for another. While there still remains much more to study this issue in particular, it’s important to realize that exercise and good nutrition are absolutely critical to the recovery process. Once you’ve educated yourself about these disorders and some of their symptoms, you’ll be better able to spot the signs for yourself.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Also referred to more simply as anorexia, anorexia nervosa is one of the most widely known eating disorders today. In individuals with anorexia, there is a disconnect between how they perceive their bodies to be and how they really are. If you have anorexia then, you may think that you are grossly overweight, even though you are clear or even clinically underweight in reality. People with anorexia nervosa will oftentimes pay very careful attention to what they eat. They may strictly adhere to an intense and nutritionally lacking diet. Or they may obsessively portion out their meals to an unhealthy degree. They may also compulsively weigh themselves, sometimes multiple times a day, or exercise more than a healthy amount.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Some of the symptoms of anorexia include:

  • An overwhelming fear of putting on weight
  • Intensely restricting your food intake
  • Severely low body weight
  • An unceasing pursuit of thinness
  • An inability and unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight
  • A drastically distorted sense of self and body image
  • Self-esteem that is dependent almost entirely upon your body weight and shape
  • An irregular or complete lack of a menstrual cycle in girls and women

The Dangers of Anorexia

Left untreated, anorexia nervosa can become an incredibly dangerous disorder. In fact, it ranks as one of the deadliest psychiatric disorders, outranking other debilitating mood disorders like depression in terms of death rates. Part of the danger of anorexia is malnutrition that typically goes hand in hand with it. Many sufferers of anorexia simply don’t get the nutrition their body needs to carry out basic essential functions. The result is a wide variety of nutritional problems such as:

  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Kidney stones
  • Muscle wasting
  • Swollen joints
  • Weakness
  • Reduced blood pressure and pulse
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • A low body temperature

It can also lead to more serious medical complications such as:

  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Structural and functional damage of the heart
  • Brain damage
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Birth defects
  • Infertility

Clearly, anorexia is more than just a simple problem with body image. It is, in fact, a very serious disorder with side effects and consequences that can permeate into nearly every aspect of an individual’s life.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa another common eating disorder. Often called just bulimia, this disorder is characterized by a binge/purge cycle. Sufferers of bulimia will often eat large quantities of food at a single time (binge) and then go to great lengths to try to rid the body of the food or weight gain (purge). A few of the most common methods of doing so include:

  • Making yourself throw up after a meal
  • Taking an unhealthy number of laxatives or diuretics to speed up food moving through your system
  • Fasting in response to a meal
  • Exercising to an extreme degree because of a meal

Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia often is accompanied by problems with body image. Sufferers may have self-esteem that is closely tied to their body shape. Unlike anorexia sufferers though, individuals who engage in bulimic behaviors may, in fact, maintain healthy body weight or could actually be overweight. Purging is often done in private as well. Many times, sufferers of bulimia will often be ashamed of or disgusted with themselves afterward, continuing to feed into the feelings of low self-esteem that often accompany the disease.

Other Health Problems Caused By Bulimia Nervosa

Someone who is bulimic may also experience a variety of adverse health problems due to their disorder including:

  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Worn tooth enamel resulting from persistent contact with stomach acids
  • Sore and chronically inflamed throat
  • Intestinal irritation and distress caused by overusing laxatives
  • Extreme dehydration from purging
  • Acid reflux as well as other gastrointestinal issues
  • An improper balance of electrolytes which can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

The final category of eating disorders is estimated to be the most common in the United States. Compared to the other two types of eating disorders though, BED is a bit tougher to identify. Part of the reason for this is because binge eating has become much easier to do than before. Food is relatively cheap and easy to obtain, portions have grown significantly over the past few decades, and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle is becoming more widely accepted across the world. As such, many people may not even know they have an eating disorder because this type of lifestyle is so common. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Many sufferers of BED are putting their bodies at risk for serious diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Signs of An Eating Disorder to Watch For

Eating disorders, as you can see, are not something to be taken lightly. What’s more, just like a substance use disorders, behavioral addictions like eating disorders are a disease, not a choice. But just like any other disease, it often takes professional help in order to overcome an eating disorder. If you or someone you know might be suffering from anorexia, bulimia, BED, or any other eating disorder you owe it to yourself and to them to seek out help. And the first step towards recovery is identifying the problem. One of the best eating disorder tests is spotting the symptoms. Listed below are some signs to watch out for. While these disorders are not limited to expressing these symptoms, it’s certainly a good place to start.

  • Anorexia Nervosa
    • Depression
    • Slow thinking
    • Poor memory
    • Thin, brittle hair and nails
    • Fatigue
    • Yellow, dry, or blotchy skin
    • Lanugo (the growth of fine hair all over the body)
    • Refusing to eat in front of others
    • Talking about food or weight constantly
    • Cutting off social life
  • Bulimia Nervosa
    • Swollen jaw area and cheeks
    • Clear or decaying teeth
    • Broken blood vessels in or around the eyes
    • Scrapes or calluses on knuckles
    • Removing themselves from social activity
    • Abrupt mood changes
    • Sadness
    • Often goes to the bathroom right after a meal
    • Exercises obsessively, even to the point of personal injury
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED is having three of the following symptoms while binging, at least once a weak for the past three months)
    • Eating quicker than usual
    • Eating to the point of being uncomfortably full
    • Eating alone due to being embarrassed
    • Continually eating, even when you are not hungry
    • Feeling guilty, depressed, or disgusted after the meal

Eating Disorders: A Problem Worth Paying Attention To

Many people who have had an eating disorder, or who may identify it in others, tend to brush it under the rug or shrug it off entirely. They may think that it really isn’t that big of a deal and surely they’ll get over it on their own. But eating disorders can, in fact, be extremely dangerous and even deadly. If it isn’t the detrimental physical effects of these disorders that begin to cause problems, it’ll be the psychological aspects that have a damaging impact. That’s why if you see the signs of an eating disorder you should seek help today. There are a variety of treatment options out there to fit your personal situation. So take the steps towards getting healthy. You won’t regret it.


Grant, Jon E., Potenza, Marc N., Weinstein, Aviv, Gorelick, David A. (2011, Sep.). Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse: Introduction to Behavioral Addictions. Retrieved from MedlinePlus (n.d.). Eating Disorders. Retrieved from The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (n.d.). Eating Disorder Statistics. Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health (2014). Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. Retrieved from Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2016, June). Anorexia Nervosa. Retrieved from Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2016, June). Binge Eating Disorder. Retrieved from Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health, (2016, June). Bulimia Nervosa. Retrieved from o