Home Naviation Bar

Eating Disorders

by Ruth Bounous, Ph.D., LCSW

Eating disorders are characterized by severe disturbances in eating behaviors (DSM-IV, 1994: 539).  Two major types of eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.  A person trying to keep himself or herself at a weight so low that it is bad for physical health characterizes anorexia.  Bulimia describes behaviors of excessive and uncontrollable overeating often followed by efforts to rid the body of the abnormal amounts of food.  Both disorders are experienced predominantly by women.  Anorexic or bulimic behaviors frequently begin during adolescence or early adulthood but may begin later in adulthood.   

Anorexic and bulimic behaviors may, at their extreme, be life threatening because of the damage that is done to physical health.  However, most people experience anorexic or bulimic behaviors that are initially less severe. It is much easier to change these behaviors when they are less severe, before physical health has been damaged.  Consequently, early awareness of behaviors associated with eating disorders is very important as is seeking the support of a counselor in changing those behaviors.

Anorexic behaviors include the following:

  • An intense fear of gaining weight and/or being fat
  • Extreme dieting, over-exercising, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, or self-induced vomiting after eating
  • A body weight that is abnormally low
  • A disturbance in the perception of the shape or size of one’s body so that no matter how thin one is, a person perceives him or herself to be too heavy
  • Excessive emphasis on body weight and shape as a source of self-esteem
  • Frequently, menstrual periods stop
  • Attempts to keep the anorexic behaviors secret

Bulimic behaviors include the following:

  • Binge eating; that is, eating in a brief period of time an unusually large amount of food and experiencing a lack of control over the eating during this period of time
  • An intense fear of gaining weight and/or being fat
  • Attempts to compensate for the overeating by fasting, self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, and enemas
  • Excessive emphasis on body weight and shape as a source of self-esteem
  • Shame about the overeating and keeping the behaviors secret

It is important for people who experience anorexic or bulimic behaviors to recognize that such behaviors are not caused by lack of willpower, laziness, and gluttony or by a character defect.  In fact, attributing eating disorders to such causes results in feelings of guilt and self-anger that actually intensifies the behaviors.  Anorexic and bulimic behaviors are not about food; these behaviors are about control and, ultimately, about the power that we do or don’t feel in our lives.  Most behaviors are learned, and what is learned can be unlearned.  With the help of a counselor, a person can learn other ways to exercise control over her or his life, ways that are growth promoting instead of damaging.