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Understanding the Origins of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders aren’t just about being fat or thin, about dieting or weight. Instead, eating disorders are typically about self-esteem, depression, power, communication, or self-expression.

Many factors can contribute to an eating disorder, including society’s emphasis on being thin and physically beautiful; the prevalence of dieting in our culture; pressure by oneself or others that people should be perfect; and food and nutrition beliefs.

Often, eating disorders begin when a person is dealing with a major problem or transition in life, such as alcoholism, death, divorce in the family, leaving home to go to school, or getting married. The person feels out of control and helpless and food provides them with unconditional comfort.

Experts view eating disorders as a combination of physical, emotional, spiritual, and cultural factors gone awry. Eating disorders are complex and take a long time to treat and cure.

You shouldn’t confuse an eating disorder with what’s commonly termed disordered eating, however. You may have picked up unhealthy eating habits from friends or in response to unusual situations, such as traveling where you may eat on the run and surviving on “junk food” for days. Conversely, an eating disorder is not temporary. It’s not a diet. It’s an illness.

Although disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder, significant differences exist between the two conditions.

Characteristics of Disordered Eating versus Eating Disorders
Disordered Eating Eating Disorders
Essential distinction A reaction to life situations. A habit. An illness.
Psychological symptoms Infrequent thoughts and behaviors about body, foods, and eating that do not lead to health, social, school, and work problems. Frequent and persistent thoughts and behaviors about body, foods, school, and work problems.
Associated medical problems May lead to transient weight changes or nutritional problems; rarely causes major medical complications. Can result in major medical complications that may lead to hospitalization or even death.
Treatment Education and/or self-help group can assist with change. Psychotherapy and nutritional counseling can be helpful but are not usually essential. Problems may go away without treatment. Requires specific professional medical and mental health treatment. Problem does not go away without treatment.

Table information courtesy of Harvard Eating Disorder Center

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