What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males. Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.

Anorexia Nervosareturn to top

is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Symptoms include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level
  • Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
  • Feeling “fat” or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • In women, loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Bulimia Nervosareturn to top

is characterized by a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Bulimia includes eating large amounts of food—more than most people would eat in one meal—in short periods of time, then getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse, or over-exercising. Symptoms include:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
  • Purging after a binge, (typically by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting)
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Binge Eating Disorderreturn to top

(also known as Compulsive Overeating) is characterized primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge. People who overeat compulsively may struggle with anxiety, depression, and loneliness, which can contribute to their unhealthy episodes of binge eating. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.

Other Eating Disordersreturn to top

can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and/or binge eating disorder. While these behaviors may not be clinically considered a full syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining. All eating disorders require professional help.

Possible Causes of Eating Disorderreturn to top

Like other complicated problems, there is no single explanation for an eating disorder. Most likely, eating disorders arise from a combination of longstanding psychological and social conditions. Poor self-image, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and certain family and personal relationships may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The stresses associated with adult life can also precipitate anorexia or bulimia. Our culture, with its pervasive idealization of thinness and physical beauty, is also partly to blame.

The Usual Course of the Disorderreturn to top

Once started, eating disorders may become self-perpetuating. Dieting, bingeing, and purging may help a person cope with strong emotions and feel more in control of his or her life. However, these coping mechanisms undermine one’s health, self-esteem, sense of competency and personal relationships.

Getting Helpreturn to top

Professional intervention is advisable. The University of Missouri Counseling Center and the Women’s Center both have counselors on staff with expertise in treating eating disorders. If you are a student currently enrolled at MU, you are eligible and encouraged to receive free and confidential counseling services at either facility:

Counseling Center
119 Parker Hall

Women’s Center
229 Brady Commons

For More Informationreturn to top

The Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to
Like Your Looks
. Cash, T.F. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997.



The Counseling Center, 119 Parker Hall, Columbia, MO 65211
Student Services: 573.882.6601
Employee Assistance Program: 573.882.6701