Disordered Eating & Eating Disorders
The way we think and feel about our bodies exists on a spectrum and changes over time. Some people develop upsetting thoughts about food, exercise and body shape that affect the way they behave. In some cases, these thoughts lead to a type of mental illness called an eating disorder.
What is it?
Disordered eating usually refers to difficult thoughts and behaviours related to food and eating. It is often connected to eating disorders, but people without eating disorders can also have disordered eating. Disordered eating can cause just as much damage as an eating disorder, both physically and mentally. People with disordered eating may go on to develop an eating disorder in the future.
Eating disorders are a type of mental illness. They can cause changes in the way we feel, think and behave towards food, eating, and to our body weight or shape. They have serious effects on health and well-being. You cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder just by looking at them. They can affect people of any gender, sexuality, race, culture, body shape, and background.
Eating disorders are complex and can look different for each person. If you think you have an eating disorder, a good first step is to see your family doctor or other health professional. It will help you to understand your eating behaviours and attitudes better. But it cannot provide a diagnosis.
What causes disordered eating and eating disorders?
There is no single cause of eating disorders. They often develop because of a mix of factors that include:
- Family history
- Medical and mental health history
- Cultural and family beliefs about food and body image
- Experience with media (including social media)
What are some signs of disordered eating and eating disorders?
Below are some of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that can be signs of disordered eating or an eating disorder. Each individual may experience disordered eating or an eating disorder differently so not everyone shows the same signs. Many of these signs can be dangerous or lead to harmful health consequences. This list cannot provide a diagnosis. If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone you know, or have other concerns that are not on this list, we recommend talking to a health professional. Spotting these signs early and taking action can prevent problems from getting worse.
- Think constantly about eating (or not eating) and/or exercise
- Believe that if you lose weight or look different you will be happier
- See eating as one of the only things you have control over
- Are confused when your friends and family members say you look too thin, because you don’t see yourself that way
- Feel guilt or shame after eating large amounts of food
- Feel you are worthless or don’t deserve food
- Feel out of control about how much you are eating
- Don’t eat even when you are hungry
- Have strict rules about what you can and cannot eat
- Count calories for everything you eat
- Spend a lot of time exercising to burn off calories or to punish yourself for eating
- Weigh yourself often
- Purge your body of food after eating (methods to get rid of food such as throwing up on purpose)
- Binge on a large amount of food in a short amount of time
What are some consequences of disordered eating and eating disorders?
Eating disorders and disordered eating can be extremely damaging, both physically and mentally. They can lead to challenging thoughts about body image and eating. You may feel sad, depressed or irritable, and have trouble concentrating.
It’s important to remember that your body needs energy from food to function properly. Disordered eating and eating disorders can lead to medical issues in almost every organ in your body. These may include:
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Dizziness or fainting
- Lack of nutrients
- Stomach or heart problems
- Organ failure or death
What can you do to prevent disordered eating and eating disorders?
We can all help to prevent disordered eating and eating disorders. We can raise awareness, and work to change the factors in our society that contribute to these serious problems. You can take action by:
- Taking steps to learn more about eating disorders
- Changing the way you talk about body image
- Exploring habits that can help you develop a better relationship with your body
- Raising awareness about the consequences of disordered eating and eating disorders
- Being critical of media that promote unhealthy body images, or don’t show a variety of healthy body types. Look carefully at the body images you see in advertising, movies, TV shows, and on social media like TikTok and Instagram. Do they look like most people? Are they realistic? Have they been edited?
No one chooses to develop an eating disorder and it’s important not to blame yourself if you are struggling. Remember that there are ways to prevent disordered eating and eating disorders. There are changes you can make early on.
The idea of recovery and treatment may be scary for people with eating disorders, and looking for help can be difficult. You may not be ready to talk about your challenges or are afraid of being judged. It may take time to find the right type of treatment and team.
There are several different types of treatment programs for people with eating disorders:
- Outpatient treatment is usually the first step that individuals struggling with eating disorders may access. This treatment looks different for everyone. It requires that you be medically stable and involves receiving regular treatment at a clinic in the community, in a doctor’s office, or at a hospital, and does not involve staying overnight at a hospital or treatment facility. Outpatient treatment allows you to stay connected with your community and get more support from friends and family.
- Day treatment is a slightly more intensive treatment. It involves attending a treatment program during the day, and then going home in the evening. Similar to outpatient treatment, day treatment requires that you be medically stable and allows you to have more connections with your community, family and friends.
- Inpatient treatment is the most intensive form of treatment, that looks and feels different to individuals. This form of treatment involves sleeping over at the hospital and receiving 24/7 support and supervision from a treatment team. Inpatient treatment is recommended when a person’s symptoms make it unsafe to stay at home, or if they require more support.
- Residential treatment is similar to inpatient treatment, but usually with less medical monitoring and support. It may take place in a hospital setting, in another centre or a private property. Residential treatment may be a good fit for patients who need the therapeutic support of a 24/7 treatment program, but may not need the medical support of a hospital setting.
Different treatment programs offer different levels of support. Some people need more than one type of program during their recovery.
Each person with an eating disorder is different and needs support that is planned especially for them. The first step is to connect with a doctor or mental health professional. They can give you more details about each treatment type and help you decide which type of support is the best fit for your needs.
What you can do if you are experiencing disordered eating or an eating disorder
You always deserve help no matter where you are on your journey. Remember that you are not alone in these struggles. You can take action on your own or get support from friends, family or health professionals. Here are some options to consider:
- Check out the links below to learn more about organizations in BC that raise awareness about eating disorders:
- Learn to recognize early signs of body image concerns, disordered eating and eating disorders. Look for help early.
- If you notice signs in a loved one, check out supporting someone with disordered eating or an eating disorder
- If you notice signs in yourself, check out how to get support
- Are you ready to get in touch with a health professional? Reach out to a counsellor, doctor or psychiatrist for help finding what kind of support you need.
- Explore the “What Next” options below for more information and resources.
Want to explore and learn more? Here are a couple options that will help you.