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Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a group of serious conditions in which a person is so preoccupied with food and weight that they can often focus on little else. Eating disorders are not about food, but are a way of coping with deeper problems that a person finds too painful or difficult to deal with directly.

There are three main types of eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa: An eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight.

Bulimia nervosa:  An eating disorder characterized by restraining of food intake for a period of time followed by an over intake or binging period that results in feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.

Binge-eating disorder: An eating disorder characterized by compulsive overeating in which people consume huge amounts of food while feeling out of control and powerless to stop.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders vary with the particular type of eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa:

  • Refusing to eat and denying hunger
  • Dieting to extremes, often coupled with excessive exercise 
  • Feeling overweight despite dramatic weight loss 
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation 
  • Negative or distorted self-image
  • Rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, refusing to eat around others, and hiding or discarding food
  • Wearing baggy, loose-fitting clothing to hide weight loss or what is believed to be an overweight body
  • Intolerant to cold due to loss of insulating body fat or poor circulation due to extremely low blood pressure

Bulimia nervosa:

  • Eating until the point of discomfort or pain, often with high-fat or sweet foods
  • Going to the bathroom after eating or during meals
  • Repeated episodes of binging and purging, usually by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics 
  • Damaged teeth and gums

Binge-eating disorder:

  • Periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating
  • Eating faster during binge episodes
  • Frequently eating alone

Causes / Physiology

There is no single cause of eating disorders. Psychological and emotional problems – such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, anger or loneliness – may contribute to the disorder. Interpersonal factors include troubled family and personal relationships, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, and history of physical or sexual abuse.

Media promotion of unrealistic images and goals is another contributor. Researchers are studying the possibility of biochemical or biological causes.  Some people with eating disorders, for example, have an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite and digestion, possibly as a result of the disorder.


An interprofessional approach is the most effective treatment route and typically involves psychotherapy, nutritional guidance, individual, group and family counselling, medications and sometimes hospitalization.

Learn more about our Adolescent Eating Disorders Inpatient Unit and Adolescent Eating Disorder Day Treatment program.

Related Links

Canadian Mental Health Association:
National Eating Disorders Association:
Pinewood Centre:
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC):
Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA):
Danielle's Place:
Hope's Garden Eating Disorders Support and Resource Centre:
Sheena's Place:
Eating Disorders Foundation of Canada:
Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders:
National Initiative for Eating Disorders:
Eating Disorders Association of Canada:
Kids Help Phone:

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