Eating Disorders - Mental Health

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  1. Defining characteristics of eating disorders
    1. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder involve disturbances in body image, eating behaviors, and perceptions of food and body weight.
  2. Diversify focus of eating disorder portrayals
    1. While stories about eating disorders tend to focus on young, white females, these disorders are prevalent across all races, genders, and socioeconomic groups. 
  3. Considerations in storytelling
    1. Be cautious about explicit depictions that might trigger harmful behaviors and look for opportunities to highlight effective treatment options.

Storytelling Tips

Portray a Range of Mental Health Experiences
  • Help viewers understand how serious and dangerous eating disorders can get and how important it is to seek treatment before serious medical issues arise, such as heart failure, seizure, or stroke.
  • Some viewers might think eating disorders are primarily about physical appearance and/or a matter of vanity, without recognizing the serious consequences. 
Spotlight Support From Friends and Family Members
  • Show families getting involved with treatment.
  • People with eating disorders often hide their behaviors from family and friends for many reasons, including not wanting to be a burden. 
  • Family is a critical part of treatment for many people and showing family involvement in treatment could make individuals who are struggling more comfortable in speaking up. 
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
  • Be careful about explicitly depicting disordered eating or purging as it can be a trigger for people who are struggling or in recovery. 
  • It’s best to also avoid showing particular behaviors common in eating disorders like calorie counting, frequent weighing sessions, target weights, hiding purging, food restriction, and laxative usage, which can normalize these behaviors for viewers.


People with eating disorders experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and typically become preoccupied with food and their body weight.

Many people believe that having an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice or solely about appearance; however, eating disorders are very serious, and sometimes fatal, conditions that are associated with a harmful view of one’s body image. 

People with this disorder frequently have distressing thoughts about their body weight and their body shape, with subsequent alterations in their food intake, which can lead to serious medical problems. The three main categories of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

In media storylines, eating disorders tend to be depicted with white, young, female characters. While this is the most impacted group, eating disorders are present in all races and ages, as well as among men (especially men who identify as LGBTQ+). 

Facts & Stats

Eating disorders affect several million people, most often females between the ages of 12 and 35.
In the US, nearly 10% of people will struggle with an eating disorder during their lifetime.
Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental health conditions.
Eating disorders are the direct cause of 10,200 deaths each year.
About 26% of people who struggle with an eating disorder attempt suicide.
More than half of people experiencing eating disorders will also have another mental health condition like an anxiety disorder or depression. 
Only 1 in 3 people with eating disorders seek treatment. 

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa involves severely or completely restricting the amount of food one eats. People with this condition often over-exercise and are dangerously underweight.  Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. Many people with anorexia die from complications associated with starvation, however some also die by suicide.

Bulimia nervosa is defined by recurrent episodes of eating an unusually large amount of food and feeling unable to control these behaviors. This binge eating is then followed by a compensatory behavior for overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive exercise, or excessive use of laxatives to try to avoid weight gain.

Binge eating disorder involves the binging mentioned above without the purging or compensatory behavior. As a result, people with this disorder tend to be overweight or obese.

Common Symptoms & Warning Signs

  • Extremely restricted eating
  • Extreme thinness
  • Relentless pursuit of thinness
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Self esteem that is highly influenced by perceptions of one’s body weight and shape
  • Severe dehydration
  • Refusal to eat around other people
  • Extreme calorie counting and caloric restriction
  • Excessive amount of time spent exercising (often hours a day) to compensate for calories eaten

Treatment Options

  • Individual therapy is often used to examine and improve eating habits and moods, and to identify and treat any coexisting mental health conditions. 
  • Family therapy is an important part of the recovery process, especially for teens and young adults, because these disorders and the associated behaviors can create strain and conflict within the family unit. 
  • Inpatient therapy is the best approach for some patients who need a more controlled environment to monitor dangerous eating habits and acclimate to a healthier relationship with food. 
  • Nutritional counseling is often required to help individuals with eating disorders transition into healthy eating patterns. 
  • Medication can be used to treat co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression. 
  • Group therapy or support groups can complement a treatment program for eating disorders and help people maintain recovery. 

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