Emotion and Motivation

Eating Disorders

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the health consequences resulting from anorexia and bulimia nervosa

While nearly two out of three US adults struggle with issues related to being overweight, a smaller, but significant, portion of the population has eating disorders that typically result in being normal weight or underweight. Often, these individuals are fearful of gaining weight. Individuals who suffer from bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa face many adverse health consequences (Mayo Clinic, 2012a, 2012b).

People suffering from engage in binge eating behavior that is followed by an attempt to compensate for the large amount of food consumed. Purging the food by inducing vomiting or through the use of laxatives are two common compensatory behaviors. Some affected individuals engage in excessive amounts of exercise to compensate for their binges. Bulimia is associated with many adverse health consequences that can include kidney failure, heart failure, and tooth decay. In addition, these individuals often suffer from anxiety and depression, and they are at an increased risk for substance abuse (Mayo Clinic, 2012b). The lifetime prevalence rate for bulimia nervosa is estimated at around 1% for women and less than 0.5% for men (Smink, van Hoeken, & Hoek, 2012).

As of the 2013 release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition, is a disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Unlike with bulimia, eating binges are not followed by inappropriate behavior, such as purging, but they are followed by distress, including feelings of guilt and embarrassment. The resulting psychological distress distinguishes binge eating disorder from overeating (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).

is an eating disorder characterized by the maintenance of a body weight well below average through starvation and/or excessive exercise. Individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa often have a , referenced in literature as a type of body dysmorphia, meaning that they view themselves as overweight even though they are not. Like bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa is associated with a number of significant negative health outcomes: bone loss, heart failure, kidney failure, amenorrhea (cessation of the menstrual period), reduced function of the gonads, and in extreme cases, death. Furthermore, there is an increased risk for a number of psychological problems, which include anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse (Mayo Clinic, 2012a). Estimates of the prevalence of anorexia nervosa vary from study to study but generally range from just under one percent to just over four percent in women. Generally, prevalence rates are considerably lower for men (Smink et al., 2012).

Link to Learning

Watch this news story about an Italian advertising campaign to raise public awareness of anorexia nervosa.

While both anorexia and bulimia nervosa occur in men and women of many different cultures, Caucasian females from Western societies tend to be the most at-risk population. Recent research indicates that females between the ages of 15 and 19 are most at risk, and it has long been suspected that these eating disorders are culturally-bound phenomena that are related to messages of a thin ideal often portrayed in popular media and the fashion world (Figure 5) (Smink et al., 2012). While social factors play an important role in the development of eating disorders, there is also evidence that genetic factors may predispose people to these disorders (Collier & Treasure, 2004).

A photograph shows a very thin model.
Figure 1. Young women in our society are inundated with images of extremely thin models (sometimes accurately depicted and sometimes digitally altered to make them look even thinner). These images may contribute to eating disorders. (credit: Peter Duhon)

WAtch It

Learn more about eating and body dysmorphic orders in the following Crash Course Psychology video.

You can view the transcript for “Eating and Body Dysmorphic Disorders: Crash Course Psychology #33” here (opens in new window).

Think It Over

  • Think about popular television programs on the air right now. What do the women in these programs look like? What do the men look like? What kinds of messages do you think the media is sending about men and women in our society?

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General Psychology by OpenStax and Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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