What Is an Eating Disorder?

An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. An eating disorder is a mental health disorder that affects a person’s eating patterns and behaviors. With an eating disorder, a person is unable to eat or keep food down for a variety of reasons (e.g., pain, fear of swallowing, fear of weight gain, etc.) These eating patterns often cause mood problems and interfere with a person’s ability to function in everyday life.

Eating disorders occur in people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, body shapes, and weights. Most adult eating disorders start in childhood between the ages of nine and 17.

People with eating disorders often have other mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder). Due to these coinciding mental health disorders, eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Why Choose Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI)?

At HMHI, our goal is to achieve health for any shape or size. We focus on improving healthy behaviors, identifying your "set point” (a weight preset by your DNA for your body), and helping you create behaviors to maintain your set point and live a full life.

Woman stands on scale

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

Non-disordered (“normal”) eating is when a person:

  • eats food when they’re hungry,
  • eats a variety of foods in different settings, and
  • is able to stop when they’re full.

Disordered eating (or disruptions in eating) is the opposite of this. People with disordered eating may:

  • have rules about certain foods,
  • fixate on food, weight, or body image in a way that negatively impacts their quality of life, or
  • use exercise, dieting, fasting, or purging to make up for eating “bad” foods or breaking their food rules.

With an eating disorder, a person’s eating behaviors become an obsession, which interferes with their daily life and relationships and may cause them to become malnourished. 

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are separated into the following categories.

  • Restrictive
    • Anorexia nervosa (a person doesn't eat enough calories or a variety of foods)
    • Bulimia nervosa (a person’s body is malnourished due to vomiting on purpose, over-exercise, or laxative/diet pill use)
  • Overeating (binge eating disorder)
  • Avoidance (picky eating)
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake (only eat certain foods)
  • Unspecified feeding or eating (doesn’t meet criteria of other disorders)

Eating Disorder Symptoms

The symptoms for anorexia nervosa may include:

  • extremely limited eating,
  • relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal weight,
  • intense fear of gaining weight, and
  • distorted body image and self-esteem that is influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape.

Signs of bulimia nervosa may include:

  • weight and body shape fixation,
  • harsh self-judgment for imagined flaws,
  • worn tooth enamel and tooth decay from stomach acid,
  • acid reflux and other gastrointestinal problems,
  • intestinal irritation from misusing laxatives, and
  • severe dehydration.

The symptoms for binge eating disorder may include:

  • binge eating (eating unusually large amounts of food in a certain amount of time),
  • feeling a loss of control during binge eating,
  • eating alone or in secret to avoid being embarrassed, and
  • feeling distressed or guilty about eating.

Causes of Eating Disorders

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown but the following factors could increase your risk of developing an eating disorder.

  • Genetic—There is a genetic component to most eating disorders. For example, anorexia runs in families. If you have a parent or sibling with anorexia, you have a higher chance of developing anorexia.
  • Behavioral—Certain personality types are more prone to developing eating disorders. For example, people with anorexia typically don't like to take risks and are perfectionists, while people with bulimia tend to be impulsive and often seek out new or thrilling experiences. People with both types of eating disorders tend to be harm avoidant (a personality type defined by shyness, fear of uncertainty, self-doubt, and worry).
  • Environmental—Parents who talk about their own weight, shape, and diet habits could influence a person's eating patterns and body image.

What to Expect During An Eating Disorder Evaluation

Evaluations for eating disorder treatment will likely include the following:

  • weight history (highest weight and lowest weight),
  • eating habits and inventory (e.g., what you eat on a typical day or during a binge),
  • beliefs around food and calories (e.g., off-limit foods, good/bad foods)
  • compensatory behaviors (e.g., amount of exercise, food rules), and
  • mood history (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.).

An HMHI provider will then examine your eating habits and how they've affected your body. They will look at your:

  • growth charts (weight/height over lifetime),
  • laboratory blood work, and
  • medical history.

After reviewing this information, an HMHI provider will make a diagnosis, including a snapshot of your overall health. Based on this, they will make a treatment recommendation that best fits your individual needs.

Teen boy in therapy

Eating Disorder Treatments & Services

HMHI does not offer programs specific to treating eating disorders at this time. However, we do offer services that may be helpful in managing an eating disorder while we treat you for a co-occurring mental health disorder. 

Services such as inpatient treatmentoutpatient treatmentday treatment, and youth residential treatment may be options depending on the severity of both the eating disorder and co-occurring mental health disorder.

Supplemental feeding tubes may be recommended in adolescents and placed with their parents’ collaboration. Referrals to specialized care outside of HMHI may be required as an alternative to or a transition from HMHI treatment. 

You will need a referral from your health care provider to be seen by an HMHI specialist for an eating disorder evaluation.

If you need immediate help, call 988 or Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. The Utah Warm Line is also available if you need a listening ear as you heal and recover.

Eating Disorder Recovery

The longer you have an eating disorder, the more your behaviors become a pattern, making it harder to change them. Early intervention for eating disorders is the best indicator of recovery and outcomes. 

Children and teens will typically make a full recovery. Once they approach their set point weight, their eating disorder behaviors, thoughts, and mood feelings decrease.

Recovery rates in adults are often lower since their eating disorder patterns have existed longer. Adults often have made life changes to maintain their eating disorder patterns, which often upset their social interactions and relationships. There's still a chance for a full recovery, but it takes more work and more time than it would for a child.

How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder

If you are worried that your loved one has an eating disorder, talk to them about scheduling an appointment with their health care provider. Some people may not know they have an eating disorder until they meet with their doctor. 

If your loved one needs immediate care, the HMHI Receiving Center is open 24/7. If their symptoms are leading them to have suicidal thoughts, the Utah Crisis Line will help.

Eating Disorder Resources

Mental Health Crisis Resources

We are here for you when you need us the most. Our team of mental health professionals is trained in:

  • mental health crisis management,
  • suicide prevention, and
  • emotional wellness.

HMHI provides the following specialty programs and resources for you and your loved ones to prevent mental health crises and provide emotional support when needed.

Contact our CrisisLine