Eating Disorders

What triggers the impulse to restrict or binge, and how is it treated?

Corticolimbic system
Reducing binge eating and purging behaviors
Distorted perception of their bodies

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, leading to self-starvation and excessive weight loss. For example, a person with anorexia may severely restrict their food intake or exercise excessively to maintain a dangerously low body weight. Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include extreme thinness, a distorted body image, and an obsession with food and weight, denial of the seriousness of low body weight or other physical and psychological consequences, changes in mood, such as irritability, anxiety, or depression.

Treatment options for anorexia nervosa typically involve a combination of medical, nutritional, and psychological therapies. Medical treatment may be necessary to address the physical consequences of severe malnutrition, such as electrolyte imbalances or organ damage. Nutritional therapy aims to help individuals with anorexia establish healthy eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight. Psychological therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or family-based therapy, can help address the underlying thoughts and behaviors that contribute to the disorder.

The side effects of anorexia nervosa can be severe and even life-threatening. These may include weakened bones, anemia, heart problems, and kidney damage. Additionally, individuals with anorexia nervosa often experience social isolation, depression, and anxiety as a result of their disorder.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the misuse of laxatives, to prevent weight gain. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include frequent fluctuations in weight, a preoccupation with body shape and weight, and feelings of guilt or shame after binge eating.

Treatment options for bulimia nervosa often involve a combination of medical, nutritional, and psychological therapies. Treatment includes nutritional counseling and meal planning to establish regular eating habits and a balanced diet, psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about food, body image, and self-worth, and medication, in some cases, to address underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.


The effects of bulimia nervosa can be severe and may include dental problems, gastrointestinal issues, and electrolyte imbalances. Additionally, individuals with bulimia nervosa often experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem as a result of their disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period, often accompanied by feelings of loss of control and guilt or shame. Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder include eating more rapidly than normal, eating until uncomfortably full, and eating large amounts of food when not hungry. Unlike other eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa, individuals with BED do not engage in regular compensatory behaviors like vomiting, excessive exercise, or strict dieting to counteract the effects of binge eating, which can lead to significant weight gain and subsequent health issues.


Like other eating disorders, treatment for Binge Eating Disorder typically involves a combination of therapies aimed at addressing the underlying emotional, psychological, and behavioral aspects. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most researched and effective therapy for BED, and nutritional counseling can help develop a healthy and balanced eating plan, normalize eating behaviors, and establish regular meal patterns.

The effects of Binge Eating Disorder can be significant and may include obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, individuals with Binge Eating Disorder often experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem as a result of their disorder.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) is a category that encompasses eating disorders that do not meet the full criteria for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder but still cause significant distress or impairment. Symptoms of OSFED can vary widely and may include atypical presentations of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, as well as other disordered eating behaviors.

Some examples are Night Eating Syndrome, where individuals consume a significant portion of their daily caloric intake during nighttime waking episodes and have a lack of appetite in the morning, and Purging Disorder, where individuals engage in recurrent purging behaviors (e.g., self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives) but do not engage in binge eating episodes.


Treatment for OSFED generally follows similar approaches used for specific eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. The treatment may involve a combination of therapies, including nutritional counseling, psychotherapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy), medical monitoring, and medication when necessary. The specific treatment approach will depend on the individual’s symptoms, needs, and underlying psychological factors.

Eating Disorders and the Brain

The neurological basis of eating disorders is complex and involves multiple brain regions and neurotransmitter systems. One key area implicated in eating disorders is the corticolimbic system, which includes the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. These brain regions play a critical role in regulating emotions, decision-making, and memory, and their dysfunction may contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviors.

An altered balance of reward and inhibition may also contribute to disordered eating. For example, individuals with anorexia nervosa may have an overactive inhibitory system, leading to excessive self-control and restriction of food intake. In contrast, individuals with binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa may have an underactive inhibitory system, resulting in a lack of control over food consumption and compensatory behaviors.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that individuals with eating disorders often exhibit abnormal activation patterns in brain regions involved in reward processing, such as the striatum and orbitofrontal cortex. These findings suggest that the neural circuits underlying reward and inhibition may be dysregulated in eating disorders, contributing to the development and maintenance of disordered eating behaviors.


Psychotherapy plays a crucial role in the treatment of eating disorders, as it helps individuals address the underlying thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their disordered eating patterns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are two of the most effective psychotherapeutic approaches for treating eating disorders.

CBT focuses on identifying and challenging maladaptive thoughts and beliefs about food, weight, and body image, while also teaching individuals healthier coping strategies and behaviors. IPT, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of interpersonal relationships and communication in the development and maintenance of eating disorders, helping individuals improve their social functioning and emotional support networks.

Enhanced Cognitive Remediation Therapy (ECRT) specifically targets cognitive deficits commonly seen in individuals with eating disorders, such as impaired central coherence, set shifting, and weak cognitive flexibility. It aims to improve cognitive functioning and enhance treatment outcomes.


For eating disorders in youth, the Maudsley family-based therapy has been shown to be particularly effective. This approach involves the entire family in the treatment process, with the goal of empowering parents and caregivers to support their child’s recovery and promote healthy eating behaviors.

Nutritional Counseling

Nutritional counseling is an essential component of eating disorder treatment, as it helps individuals develop a healthier relationship with food and establish balanced eating patterns. Nutritional counseling typically involves working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist, who can provide education on proper nutrition, meal planning, and strategies for managing disordered eating behaviors.

Some of the topics covered in nutritional counseling may include correcting misconceptions about nutrition, understanding hunger and satiety cues, and addressing feelings of guilt or shame associated with certain foods. Nutritional counseling helps individuals challenge food fears and expand their food choices. It emphasizes the importance of including a variety of foods from different food groups to ensure balanced nutrition and enjoyment of food.


By addressing these issues, nutritional counseling can help individuals with eating disorders develop a more balanced and sustainable approach to food and nutrition. Nutritional counseling works in collaboration with the multidisciplinary treatment team, including therapists, physicians, and other healthcare professionals. The dietitian communicates with the team to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated approach to treatment.

Pharmacological Treatments

In some cases, medications may be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for eating disorders. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers can be particularly helpful for individuals struggling with co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant, have been shown to be effective in reducing binge eating and purging behaviors in individuals with bulimia nervosa. Antipsychotic medications, such as olanzapine, may be helpful in treating individuals with anorexia nervosa by reducing anxiety and obsessive thoughts related to food and weight. Mood stabilizers, such as lithium or valproate, can be beneficial for individuals with eating disorders and co-occurring bipolar disorder.


In cases where severe medical complications arise due to eating disorders, specific medications may be used to manage and treat those complications. For example, if there is electrolyte imbalance or heart irregularities, medications may be prescribed to address those issues.

Body Image and Eating Disorders

Body image and societal pressures play a significant role in the development of eating disorders. Unrealistic beauty standards and the constant exposure to images of thin or muscular bodies in the media can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance.

People with eating disorders frequently have a distorted perception of their bodies. They may see themselves as larger than they actually are, focus excessively on specific body parts or flaws, or experience a lack of recognition of their actual body size.


These negative feelings about one’s body can lead to the development of disordered eating behaviors, such as extreme dieting, excessive exercise, or binge eating, in an attempt to achieve the perceived ideal body shape. Furthermore, societal pressures to conform to certain body types can exacerbate the feelings of shame and guilt associated with eating disorders, making it more difficult for individuals to seek help and recover.

Developing resilience in body image involves fostering a positive and accepting relationship with one’s body, independent of its appearance. Body image resilience can help protect against the negative impact of societal pressures and contribute to a healthier body image.

Recovery and Support

The process of recovery from an eating disorder can be challenging and often requires a comprehensive treatment approach, including medical, nutritional, and psychological therapies. Treatment options may include outpatient therapy, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), or inpatient/residential programs depending on the severity of the eating disorder.

Support systems play a crucial role in the recovery process and can include family members, friends, healthcare professionals, and support groups. Family and friends can offer encouragement, understanding, and assistance with practical aspects of recovery, such as meal planning and attending therapy appointments. Healthcare professionals, such as therapists, dietitians, and physicians, can provide specialized guidance and treatment tailored to the individual’s needs. Support groups, both in-person and online, can offer a safe space for individuals with eating disorders to share their experiences, learn from others, and develop coping strategies.


In addition to formal support systems, self-help resources, such as books, websites, and mobile apps, can also be valuable tools for individuals in recovery.

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