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 include1:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Social withdrawal
  • Claims of feeling fat when weight is normal or low
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, counting calories and with what people think
  • Denial that there is a problem
  • Wanting to be perfect
  • Intolerance of others
  • Inability to concentrate

Facts About Eating Disorders (2014), Canadian Mental Health 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