Eating disorders: It's not only about food

Understanding eating disorders

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. As with other mental health issues, eating disorders often start in adolescence or early adulthood, which means that they can and do affect people who are attending university1.

Eating disorders are complex and related to many different factors including how you feel about food, how you cope with emotions, and how you feel about yourself1.

Eating Disorders (2010), HeretoHelp

Eating disorders myths and facts

There are some common myths about eating disorders that can get in the way of how we understand them and whether someone will reach out for help.

Myth: Eating disorders are a female problem.

Fact: About 90% of people diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia are women. However, a significant number of men struggle with eating disorders and body image issues. Binge-eating disorder affects men and women equally.

Myth: You can tell if a person has an eating disorder simply by appearance.

Fact: Most people with eating disorders look like everyone else.

Myth: Purging is only throwing up.

Fact: Many people attempt to compensate for overeating by using diuretics (water pills), amphetamines, laxatives, or excessive/compulsive exercise.

Myth: Eating disorders are "dieting gone bad."

Fact: Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with potentially serious consequences. Food and weight issues are often symptoms of a more complicated underlying problem.

What can I do for myself right now?

Signs, symptoms, and when to seek help

Eating disorder warning signs

Eating disorders can make weight the primary focus of one's life. An preoccupation with calories, grams of fat, exercise, and weight can redirect focus from issues like painful emotions, difficult situations, or underlying mental health concerns1. Warning signs can include2:

  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting

  • Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g., no carbohydrates, etc.)

  • Appears uncomfortable eating around others

  • Food rituals (e.g. eats only a particular food or food group [e.g. condiments], excessive chewing, doesn’t allow foods to touch)

  • Any new practices with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)

  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities

  • Frequent dieting

  • Extreme concern with body size and shape 

  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down

  • Stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.)

  • Menstrual irregularities — missing periods or only having a period while on hormonal contraceptives (this is not considered a “true” period)

  • Difficulties concentrating

  • Dizziness, especially upon standing

  • Fainting/syncope

  • Feeling cold all the time

  • Sleep problems

  • Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (a result of inducing vomiting)

  • Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity

  • Dry skin and hair, and brittle nails

  • Swelling around area of salivary glands

  • Fine hair on body (lanugo)

  • Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots)

  • Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet

  • Poor wound healing

  • Impaired immune functioning

Eating Disorders (2018), Canadian Mental Health Association

2 Warning Signs and Symptoms (2018), National Eating Disorders Association

Body image

Many people who do not meet all the criteria for an eating disorder nevertheless lead restricted lives due to a preoccupation with body image, exercise addiction, or unhealthy dieting. A range of attitudes, feelings, and behaviours exist around food and body image, including:

  • Unhealthy lack of concern (the "couch potato")
  • Healthy attention to the body (e.g., balanced flexible eating, regular exercise)
  • Unhealthy preoccupation with food and weight (e.g., constant dieting, body dissatisfaction)
  • Full-blown eating disorders

When to seek help

Eating behaviours and attitudes toward food and weight fall on a continuum from healthy attention to one's body to a full-blown eating disorder. Recovering from an eating disorder is possible, and reaching out for help is the first step.

If you're concerned that your eating behaviours and attitudes towards food and weight are affecting your ability to meet your academic and personal goals, consider making an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional.

Get support from UBC professionals