Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are not a matter of choice but serious biologically-influenced mental illnesses that can affect people from all walks of life – no matter their gender, age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. They arise from complex interactions between genetic and environmental factors and often coexist with other mental illnesses (such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder).
People struggling with an eating disorder often face irregular eating habits and severe preoccupation with shape and/or weight. They can spend a significant amount of time thinking about food and their weight or shape and may adopt behaviours aimed at reducing the anxiety that these persistent thoughts bring. This may cause them to pull away from their friends and families and leave them feeling isolated.
Disordered eating and self-image can take many forms. Not fitting into these criteria should never stop you from seeking help and support and does not delegitimize your experience in any way. Folks are free to label themselves and their experiences as whatever they feel comfortable. Our volunteers will never disagree with or reject a label that students use. These were created so as to have a clear and easy diagnostic system to follow for professionals, but people do not always fit neatly into these categories. If you feel that you need support, please reach out. We are here for you.
Please note that the list presented below is not exhaustive and is in no way intended as a diagnostic tool. Only a mental health professional can make a diagnosis. These are simply some of the common groupings of disordered eating patterns and symptoms frequently associated with them. Its purpose is to provide information and a better understanding of the issues faced every day by those suffering from eating disorders.
According to NEDA and the BACA Clinic, anorexia sufferers are extremely preoccupied with weight and body image, which leads them to develop phobic behaviours when it comes to food. They count calories, limit both the types and amounts of food they eat, sometimes exercise compulsively, and isolate themselves in order to continue these behaviours undisturbed. Their perceptions of their bodies’ weight and shape are frequently distorted. There are two types of anorexia: restricting type and binge eating with purging/vomiting type.
According to NEDA, individuals struggling with bulimia binge eat repeatedly (consume large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time, accompanied by a sense of loss of control). They try to compensate for it afterward by restricting their food intake, vomiting, excessive exercising, laxative use, and other means. These things happen in secret and perpetuate the ever-present feelings of shame, guilt, and loss of control that bulimia sufferers experience.
Binge eating disorder resembles bulimia in many ways. According to NEDA, people struggling with it consume large amounts of food, far greater than someone in a similar situation would, in a short amount of time without having control over this behaviour. They feel extreme guilt, shame, disgust, and loss of control. However, they do not exhibit any compensatory behaviours afterward.
Also called “emotional eating”, it is different from BED (binge eating disorder). According to the BACA Clinic, compulsive overeating consists of a person constantly snacking throughout the day or regularly eating a little too much for reasons different from physical hunger. Food becomes one’s “best friend” in a sense – a source of pleasure, relaxation, and comfort – and can be used to counteract a sense of loneliness or boredom.
According to the BACA Clinic, a person suffering from night eating syndrome regularly binges, eats during the night, and consumes very little or no food during the day. This frequently leads to insomnia, which is associated with a deterioration in one’s mood (particularly in the evening) and increased levels of anxiety.
Orthorexia refers to the persistent and significant concern about the quality of one’s food. According to the BACA Clinic, for people living with orthorexia, eating in a “healthy” way becomes a constraint. They often calculate everything they consume and stop eating spontaneously. They don’t allow themselves any flexibility when it comes to the rules they have built around food.
According to the BACA Clinic, compulsive exercising is characterized by frequent and excessive physical activity, far greater than would be necessary for the person’s good health or to perform competitively. It is often used to lose weight, to counteract ingested calories so as to avoid weight gain, and to decrease very intense feelings of guilt and/or anxiety associated with eating.
According to the BACA Clinic, bigorexia is an obsession focusing on muscle mass. People with bigorexia have the impression that they are too thin or lacking sufficient muscle mass, even if that is not the case. They engage in sports excessively and compulsively in order to increase their
muscle mass to their desired extent.
According to the BACA Clinic, rumination disorder is characterized by repeated and voluntary regurgitation of food. This means that the swallowed and partially digested food is returned to the mouth. Then, the food is rechewed before being either spat out or swallowed again.
According to the OSFED Treatment Center, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a body image disorder characterised by obsessive negative thoughts related to body size, shape, and/or weight. The focus may be on a single body part or on the entire body. BDD frequently leads to severe emotional distress, problems with daily functioning (e.g., due to refusal to leave the house), and extreme efforts to “fix” the perceived flaw (e.g., through diet, exercise, plastic surgery, makeup, wigs).
According to the OSFED Treatment Center, diabulimia refers to a pattern of disordered eating in which a person with type 1 diabetes intentionally misuses insulin in order to control their weight in some way. This is not a medically-recognised term but it is often used in popular culture.
Several of the eating disorders described above fit into this category. According to the OSFED Treatment Center, this clinical category, otherwise referred to as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), encompasses a wide variety of eating disordered behaviors (maladaptive thoughts and behaviors related to food, eating, and body image) that don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific eating disorder. This includes orthorexia, compulsive exercising, body dysmorphic disorder, and diabulimia. Eating disorders take many different forms and impact individuals in different ways. As a result, people may not fit into specific categories described above, but still suffer from this mental illness.