An Introduction to Eating Disorders

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are real, complex and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships. They are not a fad, phase or lifestyle choice and are often misunderstood.. Below is a list of general facts to understand more about eating disorders.

Eating disorders are:

  • Negative changes of eating habits that can result in mental or physical harm
  • Often accompanied by concerns about shape and weight
  • Usually the result of deeper psychological turmoil
  • Serious illnesses that deserve considerable attention

Eating disorders are NOT:

  • A choice
  • A sign of vanity
  • Primarily caused by concerns about appearance
  • Only recognizable by low weight
  • Only experienced by young women

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a change in an individual’s eating behaviours that negatively affect their health. It is possible to have more than one eating disorder at the same time. Below are the main types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa (Anorexia): refusing to eat or severely restricting one’s diet in order to maintain a low body weight
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Eating large portions of food in a short period of time and then purging that food in an attempt to prevent weight gain (such as vomiting or excessive exercise)
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Eating excessive portions of food in a short period of time. This is not the same as overeating
  • Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Refusing to eat certain foods due a negative past experience or an extreme dislike of the food's characteristics (appearance, smell, taste, texture, brand, presentation) to the point that nutrition needs are not being met
  • Rumination Disorder: Bringing back up and re-chewing partially digested food that has already been swallowed
  • Pica: Eating non-digestible items for at least one month

Although this list contains all known eating disorders, not all eating disorders are the same and can have characteristics that are different than the types listed above. If a disorder does not fall into one of the above categories, there may be a diagnosis of “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)” or “Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder.”

Based on the fact that earlier treatment for EDs is strongly correlated with more successful outcomes, it is an important shift that individuals can now receive a diagnosis of Atypical AN, Bulimia Nervosa (low frequency/limited duration), or even Binge Eating Disorder (low frequency/limited duration), and get professional help before they get “sick enough” to meet meeting dangerous weight or behaviour-related criteria. 

More detailed definitions and descriptions of symptoms can be found on the NEDIC website. 

*The DSM-5 is the manual used by healthcare professionals in Canada and the United States to diagnose mental illnesses.