Eating Disorders: Causes, Effects and Treatment

Subject: Healthy Nutrition
Pages: 11
Words: 3225
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD


Eating disorders affect millions of individuals around the globe. They affect people from all social and financial circles. In the United States alone, eating disorders are approximated to affect 5-10 million females and a million males (Mazzeo & Espelage, 2002).

Levine and Smolak (2005) confirm Mazzeo and Espelage’s assertions through arguing that, “binge eating disorders” are a common problem in the American setting and that this is closely followed by Bulimia nervosa. They further assert that Anorexia nervosa is currently recognized as a problem that greatly affects the teen and mid adult demographic in the society (Levine & Smolak, 2005).

Anorexic eating behavior comes about from a fanatical terror of gaining weight because of a distorted self-image. This may imply that anorexia is instead a psychological problem as opposed to a biological or physical one. Eating disorders cause various problems on the victims, some of which include distortion of body image and bodily emaciation (Mazzeo & Espelage, 2002).

Despite rather extensive studies conducted on eating disorders, Mazzeo & Espelage (2002) note that some eating disorders have not yet been classified; but are regarded as such due to their paranormal characteristics. Eating disorders can cause a person not to attend work or underperform at work and this makes them an issue of great concern. People with such disorders are also likely to engage in drug abuse and even suicide and this has prompted a lot of research in this area.

Literature Review

Different eating disorders have varying effects on the minds and bodies of the victims of such disorders. Weight loss is generally considered as a factor in improving ones self-image (Levine & Smolak, 2005). As such, persons who are overweight or consider themselves so have a lower self-esteem because they think that other people view them negatively due to their body size or weight. Anorexia nervosa is a result of a person viewing himself or herself as having inappropriate body size hence an unhealthy attempt to alter their bodily image (Hornbacher, 2007).

Anorexic persons have no desire to add or maintain their weight and they constantly try to reduce their body weight by denying themselves food to seriously health-damaging levels (Hornbacher, 2007). They also suffer from other psychological problems and mental ailments. They include various personality disorders as well as substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder and clinical depression. Such persons also exhibit high levels of depression and anxiety whether or not they are diagnosed as having a certain syndrome. People with anorexia have a low level of cognitive flexibility (Hornbacher, 2007). Brownell and Stunkard (2002) argue that social factors have a major influence on anorexia and its prevalence today. The promotion of a thin body as the ideal form of the female in industrialized nations such as the US and most of Europe has affected the minds of teenagers and other people in general in today’s society (Gary & Wadden, 2002).

White females are the most susceptible group to anorexia. In Europe, it has been found that persons with non-European parents were least likely to fall victim to anorexia while those in wealthy families were most at risk. Career also has an influence with people whose careers have a certain demand that they remain or be thin showing a higher likelihood of developing the condition over the course of their career. Contact with cultural sources that promote weight-loss has contributed to cases of anorexia nervosa (Hornbacher, 2007).

The area of mental health safeguarding and prevention in general and the specific application of ideals and tendencies to the occurrence of eating problems and disorders are dense such that controversy concerning models, economics, politics and methodology arise at each and every moment. The area of prevention of eating disorders has very high ratios of controversy, speculation and programming to solid research with important unresolved matters concerning the thwarting of the continuation of eating disorders and disordered eating (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002). There is a current emphasis on prevention of eating disorders after subsequent research studies have identified various reasons that cause disordered eating and eating disorders.

Primary prevention diminishes the rate of novel cases of mental disorder by regulating the bad conditions that originally create disorder among people. Secondary prevention reduces the occurrence of established cases in the risk population. This is done by combining early detection in the initial stages of the disorder with efficient referral and treatment. Caplan maintained that good secondary prevention measures should have a widespread reach and reach the intended target (Levine & Smolak, 2005).

There is a great agreement among experts that prevention programs have multiple goals. The proximal goal of prevention is to reduce risk and/or increase resilience. The distal goal is to avoid or head off the onset of disorder so as to increase the time and opportunities for non-pathological development and to reduce stress on families and the general society (Levine & Smolak 2005).

The way we think has a lot of influence on what we eat and subsequently our health. This research showed a respondent with an unusual eating behavior. It found that some individuals engage in excessive (binge) eating only to try to compensate by going through an entire day without eating anything at all. This was found to be unhealthy especially if one has or is planning to engage in rigorous exercise. The subsequent total dieting was seen to be as a result of feelings of guilt due to the previous overconsumption (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Review of research findings

With an aim to investigate various social perceptions to eating disorders in the local demographic, I conducted a research on the aforementioned topic. In my research, I found that economics have an influence on eating behaviors. This was seen in a situation whereby restaurants that offer more affordable food tend to attract many people, when compared to those that sell more expensive foods despite the fact that the latter are more likely to have healthier food options. People appear to be more concerned with quantity than quality and more so if they find the price for quantity to be more competitive.

This research discovered that certain persons stay on non-standard dietary schedules that sometimes consisted of on and off diets. In this case, the individual limits their calorie intake on a certain day only to overindulge in eating on a subsequent day. The end-result is little no change in the concerned individual’s weight. An interviewee who disregarded the doctor’s advice to write down what she ate for later personal analysis was bound to experience negative health effects. People who mock others due to diet related issues cause psychological strain in the concerned individual’s mind.

Procrastination was found to have a bad effect on eating habits. Persons sometimes make a decision to go on a healthy diet only to postpone when the time comes. This not only worsens the health condition but also can cause the individual to abandon dieting altogether.

Depression was seen to have an effect on eating habits. It was discovered that some of my interviewees eating habits depend on their moods. A particular respondent demonstrated restrain against overeating when in a jovial mood but tended to overeat when depressed, upset or sad. Social events such as holidays tend to affect our eating patterns as shown by the research. Weddings and similar events have cakes that are highly tempting and everyone is encouraged to indulge in the cake eating. One observation made was of a diabetic woman who had an excessive amount of sugared cake at a social function.

Personal attitudes were seen to affect eating patterns. Individuals who did not believe that much change was possible in dieting tended not to diet. Individuals with positive attitudes hence have a higher chance of improving their health through dieting. Consuming food produces pleasure that is absent while dieting and hence people find it exceedingly easier to indulge in eating unhealthily.

People also tend to have eating habits that they think benefit them but have the opposite effect. For example, a respondent only had an appetizer and dessert at the restaurant and thought it to be a healthy option. Analysis however reveals that the dessert had more calories that the main meal so it would have been better and healthier if the individual ate the main meal but left out the high calorie dessert. The main meal may seem to contain a lot of food but the dessert is less healthy.

Low self-esteem was seen as causing people to overindulge in food and drink. Interviewees who exhibited signs of low self-esteem tended to overeat leading to obesity. People also overeat when the food is free with obvious negative consequences. The consequences are expensive since it costs to medically treat an obese individual or one suffering from an eating disorder (morbidity costs).This research found that people who lose weight are at a risk of regaining the lost weight if they do not sustain healthy practices such as exercise and restrain.

Further analysis off my research provided me with information on how best to design solutions for the aforementioned problem. Particular reference was made on ensuring that the therapeutic procedures were not invasive and maintained a futuristic scope. It is noted that most therapeutic procedures provided in this context further confirm earlier remedies discovered through research by other individuals.

Therapeutic provisions for eating disorders

Various psychotherapeutic and medicinal therapy provisions have been used to treat. Several issues determine the right approach to the treatment of eating disorders for every specific individual. These include the specific symptoms, psychological strength of the individual as well as the severity or intensity of the disease. The first stride in determining an analysis and treatment arrangement is the initial assessment. This initial assessment of an eating disorder victim includes a review of the patient’s medical history and an assessment of the current symptoms that have been presented. The physical status of the patient must also be assessed plus an evaluation of other psychiatric issues and disorders e.g. anxiety, personality issues, depression or substance abuse (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

The solutions for treatment of eating disorders are as follows

Psychotherapy – This involve the services of a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor. Therapy seeks to go through the issues or reasons that have caused the individual to develop an eating disorder. The number of therapy sessions you attend as well as their frequency and the period of time they will be spread out on will depend on the severity of the illness and are at the disposition of the therapist (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Group support – This is a powerful solution towards the recovery from an eating disorder. They are sometimes preferred since they make the patient feel less ashamed about their condition because of meeting other people with a similar problem. This creates a safe environment for sharing experiences, encouragement, advice and strategies (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Nutritional support – This is based on the concept that for one to recover from an eating disorder, one must know how to take care of his or her body. Here one learns the eating and exercise habits that are necessary for a healthy body (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Inpatient programs – These particular treatment provisions are carried out within a medical health care facility. A person in this treatment option will remain in in-patient care for a certain period of time. This may be a few days or a few months. This is generally recommended in an extreme case of eating disorder. This option may include individual therapy, nutritional counseling, group sessions, weigh-ins, holistic treatments, medical evaluations or medication (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Outpatient programs – These also occur in treatment centre or hospitals but the difference is that they allow the patient to recuperate at home with several arranged appointments with the doctor. One requirement for this option is that one to sufficiently medically stable so as to recover at home (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Psychotherapy is generally regarded as an effective way of dealing with eating disorders. A combination of psychotherapy, group support and nutritional counseling is seen to be highly effective (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002). Psychotherapy works by identifying the key issues that triggered the disorder and attempts to deal with them. Such issues could include a feeling of discontent or feelings of misfit or under appreciation (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Group support works can be conducted interactively through making victims meet with each other hence, eliminating the feeling of isolation that haunts sufferers of eating disorders. The group shares ideas and morale among themselves on how to effectively deal with the problem and has a huge emphasis on peer rather than professional influence (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Nutritional support analyses of the eating habits of the patient and informing him or her about the recommended ways of eating also serves as a good therapeutic measure. This method gains relevance through understanding that if good eating habits are learnt and adhered to, then this will stop the individual from falling victim to the earlier problem (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Inpatient programs work by directly engaging the patient in the hospital or health centre. Close observation and analysis is possible and the patient undertakes monitored exercise and other remedies to their disorder. Outpatient programs allow the patient to continue with their normal lives more or less while being subject to supervision by their doctor (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).

Research issues related to eating disorders

A great amount of research has gone into providing eating-disorders learning paradigms for the medical profession. It is noted that most of these researches are in turn tuned to having a wide focus on both socio-cultural and economic issues. Of particular importance however is the fact that most of the aforementioned studies are often confined to offering results on particular demographics. This further confirms an earlier assertion on eating disorders affecting particular age groups of the society.

We note for instance that a recent research shows that most college women have experienced some eating disorder symptoms. The cause of this is still unknown but new research insinuates that depression and a difficulty in expressing personal feelings may be a cause. This is more so with young women who have a history of family strife or abuse. This is according to the research “Association Between Childhood Physical and Emotional Abuse and Disordered Eating Behaviors in Female Undergraduates: An Investigation of the Mediating Role of Alexithymia and Depression,” by Suzanne E. Mazzeo, Virginia Commonwealth University and Dorothy L. Espelage, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; as cited in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Mazzeo & Espelage, 2002). This research was good because it recognized that emotional abuse or other factors did not lead to eating disorders but rather the development of responses to these factors caused the disorders. The responses included alexithymia and depressive symptoms (Mazzeo & Espelage, 2002).

Levine & Smolak (2005) quote an online study conducted by Self Magazine on a survey of eating disorders on women. The survey revealed that 90% of the women studied seemed to be affected by eating disorders. An extra 10% are burdened with serious eating disorders such as bulimia. These findings however only represent the readers of that magazine who are more conscious about their eating habits. The survey should have been a controlled trial of randomly selected respondents for better results. It however had astonishing results including one that showed that 13% of women smoke to lose weight (Levine & Smolak, 2005).

Holmes (2005) notes that a study conducted at Cornell University showed that freshmen college students gain weight during their first year at campus. This was due to the availability of unhealthy food options. The study sampled 51 women and 9 men. The sample size should have been increased for more reliable results (Holmes, 2005).

A study titled Risk of major adverse perinatal outcomes in women with eating disorders by Micali N, Simonoff E and Treasure J. found that women with bulimia nervosa had higher rates of previous miscarriages. Those with anorexia nervosa gave birth to babies with lower birth weight than normal. The ones with anorexia nervosa gave birth to the underweight babies due to their own lower pre-pregnancy body mass index. The study concluded that women with previous eating disorders have a high chance of developing complications during pregnancy and birth and recommended that antenatal services be made aware of this risk (Micali, 2007).

Computational modeling can be used in the treatment of eating disorders. This is a therapeutic measure that utilizes technology (computers); thorough altering behavioral approaches towards dieting. It is advantageous because modern computers are very quick enabling the running of several simulations at a particular short time. This allows a lot of statistical power. Cognitive psychology deals with the investigation of the internal mental processes of thought including memory, visual processing, language and problem solving. The applications in the treatment of eating disorders which are mainly influenced by the mind are therefore obvious and highly useful (Brownell & Stunkard, 2002).


Eating disorders are a huge blow to health of many people around the world. The modern culture and westernization has caused people especially women and girls to aspire for the ideal body size. This has led to the spread of anorexia nervosa where the affected persons are highly afraid of gaining weight despite the fact that they are thin and malnourished. The opposite of this insufficient feeding is rapid feeding of large amounts of food more commonly known as binge eating. This disorder is commonly known as bulimia nervosa (Holmes, 2005). People who have this disorder tend to hide from other people during their episodes of binge eating. As a result they suffer from isolation. This isolation is not restricted to bulimia nervosa sufferers but seems to be replicated among all people suffering from eating disorders.

Eating disorders cause economies to suffer significant blows and cause disruption of social life. As such they are a significant issue to many industrialized societies around the world. It has been maintained that such disorders can be prevented with preemptive measures such as the prevention of social and sexual abuse and the development of a stronger sense of self (Holmes, 2005).

People have various attitudes and habits concerning the type and quantity of food they eat. Some attitudes are detrimental to the health of the persons concerned (Holmes, 2005). These include the thought that eating heavily one day and then starving yourself on the next will help you lose weight.

Another detrimental habit is skipping nutritious meals such as a main meal at a restaurant and having the dessert, which actually has more calories when compared to the earlier food group. Such attitudes and habits must change for a person to have good eating habits, avoid eating disorders and stay healthy (Gary & Wadden, 2002).

Other thinkers and theorists especially in the fields of health psychology argue for a shift of weight from the “detect it-treat it” model to a more behavior integrated model focusing on personal and environmental changes, broadly conceived, that contribute to health and prevention of illness (Levine 2005, Smolak 2005).

Eating disorders have been proven preventable and thus society should continue research on the best way to deal with this problem. Prevention is always more affordable and effective than treatment and should be promoted with a greater resolve.


Brownell, K. D. & Stunkard, J. A. (2002). Goals of Obesity Treatment. In C. Fairburn, & K. Brownell (Eds.), Eating disorders and obesity (pp. 507-509). NY: Guilford.

Gary, F. D. & Wadden, T. A. (2002). Social and Psychological Effects of Weight Loss. In C. Fairburn, & K. Brownell (Eds.), Eating disorders and obesity (pp. 499-503). NY: Guilford.

Holmes L. (2005) Freshmen Weight Gain may contribute to College Eating Problems. Web.

Hornbacher, M. (2006) Wasted: A memoir of Anorexia and bulimia. NY: Harper.

Levine P. & Smolak L. (2005). The prevention of eating problems and eating disorders: theory, research, and practice. London: Routledge

Mazzeo, S. E. & Espelage, D. L. (2002). Association Between Childhood Physical and Emotional Abuse and Disordered Eating Behaviors in Female Undergraduates: An Investigation of the Mediating Role of Alexithymia and Depression. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 49 (1), 49, 86-100. Web.

Micali, N. (2007). Risk of major adverse perinatal outcomes in women with eating disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 190: 255-9. Web.