Everyone feels uncomfortable about their body or relationship with food at some point. But if these relationships deteriorate or become a source of stress, it can end up spiraling into disordered eating behaviors or a diagnosable eating disorder.
"Disordered eating" is an umbrella term used to describe the way people who feel uncomfortable about food, their bodies, exercise, or a large number of other food-related issues behave around them. While disordered eating isn't always specific enough to merit a mental health diagnosis of an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or binge-eating disorder, it often shares the same triggers, patterns, and anxieties.
It can also be just as serious regardless of diagnosis. Left unchecked, disordered eating can lead to serious physical health issues, and it can even pave the way to a diagnosable eating disorder.
Because disordered eating develops from a complex combination of genetic, environmental, and individual factors, there's no universally agreed upon or exact cause of eating disorders. One factor that many experts agree on, though, is the power of social media. According to a 2016 study, a strong link exists between social media use and body image issues, including promoting starvation-style diets, encouraging extreme exercise, and fostering low self-esteem.
In our image-centric times, we're frequently exposed to images of "the perfect body" everywhere we turn—from our Instagram feeds to our favorite TV shows. This is obviously a subjective ideal that is designed to be unattainable for the vast majority of people. The comparison to this image, however, can make people try to lose unnecessary weight through extreme dieting, overexercise, and other disordered behaviors.
There's no denying that there's a link between eating disorders and social media use, particularly in the development of negative body image. This is especially true among young women who are already living with an eating disorder, making them more susceptible to the influence and pressures of social media.
The stereotype of someone with an eating disorder is that of a young woman who’s most likely very thin and most likely white. But that's not always the case. In reality, not everyone with an eating disorder is thin, white, young, female, or even diagnosed. And according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, the majority of people with eating disorders are not underweight.
Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of their age, gender, color, sexual orientation, or income level. Unfortunately, stereotypes linked to eating disorders often deter people from seeking professional mental health care. Despite similar rates among non-Hispanic white people, African Americans, and Asian Americans in the United States, people of color are less likely to seek mental health treatment.
Not everyone with an eating disorder has anorexia—and anorexia nervosa is not the most common eating disorder. In fact, the most common eating disorder is OSFED (other specified eating disorder). As its name suggests, there isn't a clear match with any of the other eating disorders, but it's just as serious an illness.
Some other common types of eating disorders include:
Eating disorders stop people from getting the nutrition they need for good health, which directly impacts mental health. The resulting imbalances in the body's metabolism can lead to lifelong gut issues, dangerously low electrolyte levels, and other health problems. While anorexia can lead to low blood pressure and a slowed pulse, bulimia can trigger heartburn, dehydration, and kidney failure. Brain fog, changes in mood, and sleep disturbances are also common for people diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Of course, the physical problems are further exacerbated by the emotional and psychological toll that accompanies mental health conditions—both for those affected and for their loved ones.
We all know that a balanced, nutrient-dense diet keeps us healthy, but eating disorders are rarely about not knowing what balanced eating looks like. Full recovery isn't about eating a healthy amount of food—it's about coping with stress and anxiety, and overcoming perfectionism.
As a result, treatment needs to tackle the underlying issues driving the eating disorder. Any person with a diagnosed eating disorder needs professional mental health care and support tailored to their individual needs. If you think you have an eating disorder, it's important to talk to your primary care doctor or another trusted health care provider. They can refer you to a specialist for professional support, guidance, and treatment.