Eating Disorders

Table of Contents

What Are Eating Disorders?


Eating disorders are characterized by severe disturbances in:

  • Attitudes and feelings about food, weight and body shape
  • Eating behaviors
  • Weight management practices

The term eating disorder may be used for three different conditions: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 5 to 10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men are suffering from full-blown eating disorders or borderline variants of these disorders.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by very restricted eating, self-starvation, and excessive weight loss.

Symptoms and signs include:

  • Inability to maintain weight at or above the minimal normal weight for age and height
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape
  • Distorted body image
  • In women, the absence of three consecutive menstrual periods
  • Possibly, self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, or intense exercise to lose or control weight
  • Weight loss
  • Thinning or loss of hair on head, increase in fine body hair (lanugo)
  • Always being cold
  • Dry skin, brittle nails
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Secrecy around eating
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food in a short period of time (binge eating) followed by purging (by self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, diet pills, or excessive exercise) to prevent weight gain.

Symptoms and signs include:

  • Binge eating
  • A sense of lack of control over eating during the binge
  • Purging after a binge
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape
  • Dental erosion and cavities (from vomiting)
  • Swelling of glands in the neck
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Broken blood vessels in the eyes (from vomiting)
  • Sores, calluses, or scars on knuckles (from self-induced vomiting)
  • Raspy voice (from vomiting)
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Secrecy around eating, hoarding or hiding food, excuses around missing food or money spent on food
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, excuses to explain eating behaviors
Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating that are not followed by any compensatory behaviors (purging) to prevent weight gain.

Symptoms include:

  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time (binge eating)
  • A sense of lack of control over eating during the binge
  • Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • Hoarding or hiding food
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
  • Weight fluctuations, especially weight gain

Medical Complications of Eating Disorders

Sometimes people don't realize how serious and potentially debilitating or life threatening an eating disorder can be. Specific complications include:

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Emaciation, weakness, and fatigue
  • Amenorrhea (loss of periods in women)
  • Estrogen deficiency in women
  • Osteoporosis (loss of bone density)
  • Abnormal temperature regulation
  • Depressed immune system
  • Electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to heart arrhythmias and even heart attack
  • Thinning of left ventricle (wall of the heart) and decreased cardiac chamber size (life threatening)
  • Abnormal slowing of heart rate
  • Anemia

Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to heart arrhythmias and even heart attack
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Fainting
  • Swelling of the legs
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation, bloating
  • Esophageal tears and rupture
  • Stomach rupture
  • Dental erosion and cavities

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

There is no single cause of eating disorders. Sociocultural, psychological, and genetic factors all play a part. An eating disorder may begin as a desire to lose weight or get in shape. Dieting and weight loss, even when unhealthy, are encouraged and reinforced by our cultural idealization of thinness. Women and girls, and increasingly men and boys, are taught from an early age that their self-worth is dependent on their physical appearance, and that their appearance must fit the ideals of Western culture. Such beliefs may lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, inadequacy, and loneliness. Troubled family and personal relationships also have a role in the development of eating disorders. An eating disorder may start out as a person's attempt to cope with painful feelings or stay in control of their life; however, these behaviors quickly get out of control and reduce the person's self-esteem and freedom. Ultimately, eating disorders undermine psychological stability and physical health, with long-lasting negative effects and a potentially fatal outcome.

Emotional and cognitive symptoms related to and caused by eating disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Impaired concentration and focus
  • Low self-esteem
  • Control issues and perfectionism
  • Isolation

What Does Treatment Involve?

Eating disorders require the care of an experienced professional, preferably someone who specializes in treating them. Treatment that is effective and produces long-lasting results involves a multidisciplinary approach, including some combination of individual and group therapy, medication, nutritional counseling, and medical care. Ideally, each person's treatment program is individually tailored to fit their strengths and resources, as well as past experiences, specific problems, and severity of symptoms.

Optimal treatment addresses the individual's psychological, sociocultural, and interpersonal concerns as well as the specific symptoms of the eating disorder.

Treatment often occurs on an outpatient basis. However, residential treatment or hospitalization is recommended when eating disorder symptoms are more severe and/or have led to physical problems that may be life threatening. In addition, in some situations problems are so severe that the person is unable to effectively change their behaviors without the close supervision and treatment that hospitalization or residential treatment can provide.

Treatment of Eating Disorders at UCSC

Student Health Services, which include Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), has an Eating Disorder Treatment Team to provide coordinated care of and consultation on eating disorder cases. Students with eating disorders who receive services at Student Health and/or CAPS may receive coordinated treatment that can include medical evaluation and ongoing care, psychiatric evaluation and follow up, nutritional counseling, individual therapy, and group therapy. Although some students choose to start treatment on campus through CAPS, those with serious eating disorders are better served by more open-ended, longer-term treatment, which CAPS does not offer. These students are referred off campus for treatment with clincians and agencies that have expertise in eating disorders, sometimes in conjunction with ongoing medical care at Student Health.

UCSC and Other Resources

Appointments and referrals for eating disorder treatment:

More information and eating disorder support:

See our Resources page for information, self-help tools, and links to other resources.

Visit our Crisis page for crisis/emergency resources.