Are Eating disorders a mental illness

April 14, 2015
Episodes of binge eating


An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food and weight that interferes with many areas of a person’s life. One’s thoughts become preoccupied with food, weight or exercise. A person who struggles with an eating disorder can have unrealistic self-critical thoughts about body image, and his or her eating habits may begin to disrupt normal body functions and affect daily activities. Eating disorders are not just about food and weight. People begin to use food as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable or painful emotions or to help them feel more in control when feelings or situations seem over-whelming. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) recognizes Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder).

Anorexia Nervosa – A person with anorexia may have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Someone with anorexia may practice unhealthy behaviors such as: restricting calories, only eating specific foods or skipping meals frequently.

Bulimia Nervosa – A person with bulimia may also be intensely afraid of becoming fat or gaining weight. Someone with bulimia may eat large amounts of food in a short period of time (binge) and then eliminate the food and calories (purge). One may induce vomiting, exercise excessively, or use laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills to purge weight or calories.

Binge Eating Disorder – This disorder involves eating very large amounts of food rapidly (to the point of feeling sick or uncomfortable). These episodes of bingeing occur frequently. When binge eating, a person feels like they cannot stop eating or control what or how much is eaten.

OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) – OSFED is a feeding or eating disorder that causes significant distres or impairment, but does not meet the criteria for another feeding or eating disorder.


There isn’t one conclusive cause of eating disorders. Multiple factors are involved, such as genetics and metabolism; psychological issues – such as control, coping skills, trauma, personality factors, family issues; and social issues, such as a culture that promotes thinness and media that transmits this message.

Thomas Insel, MD, Director of NIMH, discusses eating disorder causes and treatment.


The role of genetics on eating disorders is of particular interest to researchers. Our knowledge at this point indicates that genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger. We are far from knowing specific genes that cause eating disorders. There are a number of genes that work with environmental triggers. Dieting and loss of weight may influence the development of anorexia by turning on a gene that may influence an eating disorder. There are many cases of transgenerational eating disorder and twin studies which make this connection. There is probably a 5-6 greater chance of developing an eating disorder if an immediate relative has an eating disorder.

Depression and Anxiety

Looking at depression and anxiety disorders as psychiatric illnesses which are biological in nature, we see that they commonly co-exist in the eating disorder patient and their families.

Thought: Did you know that rats who were put on a restrictive diet spent increasing amounts of time running on their activity wheel? They lost a great deal of weight. If the researchers had let them continue to do this, the animal would have died.

Psychological Factors
Although every case is different, clinicians have noticed patterns in psychological issues with patients who have eating disorders.

Mental illness stigma
Mental illness stigma
Pro Recovery: Eating Disorders & Mental Illness
Pro Recovery: Eating Disorders & Mental Illness
Mental Illness History.mp4
Mental Illness History.mp4
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