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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Toller

Understanding & Treating Eating Disorders

Updated: Jul 24, 2022

Eating Disorders are a range of mental health conditions marked by persistent eating behaviours that can negatively affect your health. Approximately 1 million Canadians are suffering from some form of eating disorder, according to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED). While North American society has considered it normal to be concerned about weight loss, body weight or appearance, and controlling food intake (like dieting), it could be a sign of an eating disorder when it becomes an obsession or fixation.

These eating behaviours can negatively impact your physical health, mental health, emotions, and ability to function in critical areas of your life. They can even be life-threatening if left untreated, having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is essential to understand the different types of eating disorders, their signs, and symptoms and seek treatment as soon as possible. Eating disorders are treatable and can be fully recoverable with the proper care.

Who is at Risk of an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders can affect everyone of all ages and genders but is most common in young women. They often appear during teen years and young adulthood but can also develop during childhood or later adulthood. The cause is not yet fully understood, but researchers know that genetics, biological, behavioural, psychological, and social factors can change a person's risk. These factors often correlate to significant life changes, abuse, stress, anxiety, and depression.

As mentioned earlier, eating disorders can be very dangerous and even deadly. Though a person with an eating disorder may appear healthy, these eating behaviours can have very damaging health consequences that affect almost all body systems. These medical implications include:

  • Lack of adequate nutrition

  • Harm to the heart; e.g. palpitations, angina

  • Issues with the digestive system; e.g., acid reflux, GIRDS, IBS, constipation

  • Weakened bones

  • Loss of enamel from the teeth and possible sores

  • Lack of energy and feelings of weakness

  • Anemia

  • Kidney stones

  • Abdominal pain and bloating

  • Gallbladder disease

  • Type II diabetes (binge and emotional eating)

  • Sleep disruption

Most Common Types of Eating Disorders

There are many types of eating disorders, and they are each associated with different but sometimes overlapping symptoms. If you are exhibiting any combination of the symptoms listed below, you should contact a health care provider.

Anorexia is one of the most well-known eating disorders, marked by body dysmorphia, which causes people to have an altered self-image; people can view themselves as overweight even if they are severely underweight. It creates a situation where the person feels they need to constantly monitor their weight, avoid certain foods, dangerously restrict their calorie intake, and exercise excessively.

Anorexia can also present obsessive-compulsive behaviors like obsessively collecting recipes, hoarding food, and being constantly preoccupied with food.

There are two sub-groups within the anorexia category: restrictive and binge-purge. Individuals in the restrictive category severely limit the amount and type of food they consume and lose weight solely through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise.

Individuals within the binge-purge sub-group also restrict the amount and type of food they eat. Still, they may also have binge-eating and purging episodes. They can, but don't necessarily have to, consume large amounts of food, followed by purging activities like vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, or exercising excessively. It can make spotting others with this type of disordered eating more difficult, as they appear to eat with others yet purge in private.


  • Extremely restricted eating and/or intensive and excessive exercise

  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)

  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight

  • Intense fear of gaining weight

  • Distorted body or self-image that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape

  • Denial of the seriousness of low body weight

  • Preoccupation with bowel habits

  • Addiction to exercising

Side Effects

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)

  • Mild anemia

  • Muscle wasting and weakness

  • Brittle hair and nails

  • Dry and yellowish skin

  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)

  • Severe constipation

  • Low blood pressure

  • Slowed breathing and pulse

  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart

  • Drop-in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time

  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time

  • Infertility

  • Brain damage

  • Multiple organ failure

Bulimia Nervosa is when a person has reoccurring episodes of binge-eating and purging. During these binges, people with bulimia often feel they do not have control over their eating and cannot stop eating until they are painfully full. Binge eating is then followed by purging activities, including forced vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and extensive exercise to compensate for the calories consumed and relief from gut discomfort.

Bulimia is often confused with the binge-purge subgroup of anorexia because they have similar symptoms. However, individuals with bulimia stay at a relatively average weight instead of the emaciation associated with anorexia.

Often, dental professionals find evidence of Bulimia Nervosa during regular check-ups.


  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating with a feeling of lack of control

  • Recurrent episodes of inappropriate purging behaviours to prevent weight gain

  • Self-esteem is overly influenced by body shape and weight

  • Fear of gaining weight, despite having an average weight

Side Effects

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat

  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area

  • Worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth from exposure to stomach acid when vomiting

  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems

  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse

  • Severe dehydration from purging

  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals) can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in Canada, affecting around 2% of the entire population. The symptoms are similar to the binge-eating aspects of bulimia nervosa and the binge-eating subgroup of anorexia. It is an uncontrollable over-eating creating a large intake of food in a short amount of time. However, these binges are not followed by purging activities or the restriction of calories. As a result, people with a binge-eating disorder tend to be overweight.


  • Eating large amounts of foods rapidly, in secret, and until uncomfortably full, despite not feeling hungry

  • Feeling a lack of control during episodes of binge eating

  • Feelings of distress, such as shame, disgust, or guilt, when thinking about the binge-eating behaviour

  • No use of purging behaviours, such as calorie restriction, vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative or diuretic use, to compensate for the binging

Side Effects

  • Overweight or obese

  • Heart disease

  • Stoke

  • Type II diabetes

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is a new term to replace "feeding disorder of infancy and early childhood," also known as "selective eating disorder." Someone with ARFID will limit the amount and type of food they eat. Still, unlike anorexia, there is no body dysmorphia or fear of weight gain. This disorder also generally develops earlier than the other disorders listed; symptoms can develop during infancy or childhood and persist through adulthood. Also, unlike other disorders, it affects both men and women at a similar rate.

ARFID goes beyond picky eating, but rather individuals can lack interest in eating or distaste for certain smells, tastes, colours, textures, or temperatures. The limited calorie intake can affect proper development in children and basic body function in adults.


  • Dramatic restriction of types or amount of food eaten

  • Lack of appetite or interest in food

  • Limited range of preferred foods that becomes even more limited (“picky eating” that gets progressively worse)

  • eating habits that interfere with normal social functions, such as eating with others

Side Effects

  • Weight loss or poor development for age and height

  • Upset stomach, abdominal pain, or other gastrointestinal issues with no other known cause

  • Nutrient deficiencies or dependence on supplements or tube feeding

  • Avoidance or restriction of food intake that prevents the person from eating sufficient calories or nutrients

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are treatable, and you can fully recover from them. Early detection is critical because of the medical implications and the higher risk of suicide. Eating disorders are most commonly treated with a combination of the following:

  • Psychotherapy or talk therapy such as ISTDP, CBT, EMDR, etc.

  • Medical care and monitoring

  • Nutritional counselling

  • Medications (such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications)

A few of the treatment goals include: addressing self-image issues, addressing possible traumas, restoring adequate nutrition, bringing weight to a healthy level (this means either bringing it up or down), and reducing unhealthy behaviour such as excessive exercise binge-purge or binge eating behaviours.

The treatment plan is always modified to fit your situation and your needs. Because eating disorders are often paired with other mental health conditions like depression or substance abuse disorders, it is important to deal with them as part of the treatment plan. Including family members and other support systems in the treatment plan is vitally important to recovery, especially for adolescents.

If you, or someone you love, are struggling with an eating disorder, call Nomina Wellness to talk about how inpatient eating disorder treatment can help.

Understanding & Treating Eating Disorders



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