What is an Eating Disorder?

It may seem simple to define “eating disorder,” but the truth is that the term encompasses a wide variety of abnormal behaviors that can present in a number of clinical pictures.

One of the most basic ways to define “eating disorder” is as a cluster of abnormal eating habits associated with deranged thoughts or negative feelings. To define “eating disorder” adequately both psychological and clinical symptoms must be addressed.

Eating disorders can be classified into specific diseases such as anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), Rumination Syndrome, binge eating disorder (BED), orthoexia, and pica. If the symptoms of abnormal eating habits do not match the exact definition of a particular eating disorder, the disorder is classified as an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). BED and orthoexia are not recognized by the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

Each type of eating disorder has its own diagnostic criteria and clinical presentation so to define “eating disorder,” one can only provide generalities. Eating behavior may be increased or decreased as in fasting or binging.

Another way to define “eating disorder” is to note that altered eating habits are often associated with intense feelings of low self-esteem and guilt. Some people with eating disorders may attempt to purge these feelings by vomiting, fasting, excessive exercising, use of laxatives, enemas, and diuretics. Others may deny themselves food by chewing and spitting it out. Still others may obsess about food, labeling certain foods “safe” or “off-limits” and attempt to eat perfectly.

To define “eating disorder” one must note that abnormal behaviors involving food occupy all of a person’s attention so that they are unable to live a normal healthy life. Focusing exclusively on food works to effectively distract a person from any pain or trauma they have experienced.

As you can see, to define “eating disorder” is no simple task. At its most basic level an eating disorder is disordered feeding habits associated with psychological distress. But just as each individual person is unique so can be the presentation of an eating disorder.

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