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Eating Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

The primary eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and either one can cause serious health problems and sometimes even death.

A record number of people are overweight in today’s world, but there are others, mostly young women, who are drastically underweight and even dying to be thin. Of course, the question that arises is, what causes young women to obsess over their weight to the extent they develop a serious eating disorder?

Moreover, what can be done to help them before they meet the same fate as Karen Carpenter, a musical sensation of the 1970s, who lost her battle with anorexia nervosa and died at 32 from cardiac arrest?

Causes of the Eating Disorders Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa

According to Sharon Brehm, Saul Kassin, and Steven Fein, coauthors of Social Psychology (2002), women are more likely than men to be strongly influenced by the “slender ideal” projected by the mass media (p. 313).

Women see ultra-thin models, actresses, and celebrities in magazines, movies, television shows, and advertisements, and they become dissatisfied with their own less-than-ideal bodies. Moreover, a cultural ideal for thinness is often established in early childhood by not only overly weight-conscious parents or other relatives but also fairytales like Cinderella and unrealistically proportioned dolls like the ever-popular Barbie.

Moreover, though these can different from individual to individual, there are certain factors that often contribute to the development of an eating disorder:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Childhood obesity
  • Parents and close relatives who suffer from depression and/or alcoholism
  • Overweight parents or siblings
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Unstable sense of self
  • Past molestation, rape, or incest
  • Unrealistic quest for perfection
  • Overly protective parents
  • Overly critical parents (Zastrow, 1995)

Definition of Anorexia Nervosa

The term anorexia nervosa means “loss of appetite due to nerves,” yet Dr. Charles Zastrow maintains that this definition is inaccurate since individuals suffering from the disorder do not actually lose their appetites until the later stages of what amounts to self-imposed starvation. Initially, individuals do experience hunger; they simply refuse to satisfy that hunger.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Ninety-five percent of individuals diagnosed as anorexic are females, most notably adolescent females (Zastrow, 1995); and although there are quite a few symptoms associated with the disorder, the main symptoms include the following:

  • Avoidance of food even when hungry
  • Excessive thinness to the point of emaciation
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Distorted body image
  • Belief that thinness equals happiness and success
  • Increased depression
  • Cessation of menstruation
  • Reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
  • Water retention
  • Growth of excessive fine hair on the body
  • Metabolic changes (Zastrow, 1995)

Definition of Bulimia Nervosa

Derived from a Greek word meaning “ox-like hunger,” bulimia is characterized by a binge-then-purge cycle. During the binge phase, individuals consume large quantities of food, usually averaging from 1,000 to 5,500 calories at one time, although a daylong binge can include more than 50,000 calories (Zastrow, 1995, p. 327).

Then, during the purge phase, bulimics rid their bodies of the food, most frequently through self-induced vomiting, although some bulimics opt to fast, participate in vigorous exercise, use diet pills, or take diuretics and/or laxatives.

Eating Disorders - How Bulimia Nervosa Affects Your Body
Eating Disorders – How Bulimia Nervosa Affects Your Body – By Office of Women’s Health –, Public Domain, Link

Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

Unlike anorexics, bulimics are often within a normal weight range, though some, like anorexics, are thin to the point of emaciation. However, according to Dr. Zastrow (1995), regardless of body weight, bulimics tend to exhibit certain symptoms, although it’s important to note that these can differ from individual to individual:

  • Binging on calorie-laden foodstuffs such as sweets and fried foods
  • Feelings of shame over the binge-purge cycle
  • Unreasonable fear of weight gain
  • Alcohol or substance abuse (More often present in young adults)

Dangers of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa

While anorexics are in danger of starvation, both anorexics and bulimics face serious health issues. As Dr. Zastrow says, “Fat synthesis and accumulation are necessary for survival” (p. 328). When fat is depleted, the body begins to use stored sugar, and when sugar supplies are eventually exhausted, the body literally begins to shut down as its metabolism decreases.

Other dangers associated with eating disorders include the following:

  • Potassium depletion.
  • Muscle fatigue and weakness.
  • Erratic heartbeat and/or heart attack.
  • Kidney damage and even failure.
  • Liver impairment.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Stomach rupture.
  • Severe sore throat and/or tearing of the esophagus.
  • Gum disease and tooth decay.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa

Given these disorders’ seriousness and complexity, the best treatment is professional intervention; and according to Dr. Charles Zastrow, such treatment usually involves three primary objectives:

  • Resolving the psychosocial and family dynamics that led to the disorder’s development.
  • Medical care to correct health issues caused by starving or binging and purging.
  • Helping sufferers reestablish healthy eating behaviors and a normal weight.

Ultimately, however, whether or not any course of treatment is successful depends upon the sufferer’s learning that being too thin is unhealthy, for unless she can comprehend this reality, she will more than likely soon return to the same behaviors and, in the end, perhaps die in order to be thin.


  • Brehm, S., Kassin, S., Fein, S. (2002) Social Psychology: Fifth Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Zastrow, C., Kirst-Ashman, K. (1995) Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Environment. Chicago: Nelson Hall Publishers

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