Eating Disorders

What is an eating disorder?

The term ‘eating disorder’ describes a psychological illness, affecting both men and women, covering a wide range of eating habits from compulsive eating to anorexia. Three types of eating disorder are recognised in the American Psychiatric Association’s mental health manual. These are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).

The disorders that occur most commonly with substance abuse are bulimia nervosa and EDNOS. Those suffering from bulimia have often experienced anorexia in the past. An eating disorder that is dormant often re-emerges following substance abuse treatment when alcohol or drugs are no longer used.

Causes of eating disorders

All eating disorders are influenced by body image. Dissatisfaction with the body as a whole, or particular parts, can lead to an eating disorder. It can also maintain the disorder as the person attempts to reach the desired body shape and size, which is frequently unattainable. Sufferers usually display signs of denial – consciously or unconsciously refusing to admit there is a problem. Denial is a powerful obstacle to treatment and will discourage the sufferer from looking for help.

There is no specific reason for the development of an eating disorder. Different eating disorders are due to a variety of factors:

  • Anorexia and bulimia: evidence of reduced serotonin activity in the brain
  • Anorexia: genetic vulnerability, family history of an eating disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bulimia can be triggered by food restriction in childhood
  • Binge eating disorder and bulimia can be triggered by ‘normal’ dieting.

Characteristics of both substance abuse and eating disorders:

  • They are chronic diseases
  • They are characterised by denial, secretiveness, rituals and obsessive/compulsive behaviour, pre-occupation with a substance (e.g. drugs, food)
  • They may be life-threatening
  • Sufferers may move from one disorder to another.