Understanding Mental Health and Eating Disorders

Category: Eating Disorders, Mental Health
9 minute read.

The data surrounding disordered eating is often inaccurate and unreliable. As a result, it can be challenging to understand how widespread these often dangerous mental health conditions may be in the United States. Recent estimates from the National Eating Disorder Association indicate as many as thirty million people struggle with an eating disorder. Worldwide, that number is more than double. Again, here in the United States, this is likely a low estimate.

A common question many have when learning about or trying to understand disordered eating is “how do eating disorders affect mental health?” This question is challenging to answer. However, an excellent place to start is to discuss eating disorders in general. There are several types of eating disorders. However, a few are more well-known and better understood than others. Although only a few are discussed below, it is vital to note that all forms of disordered eating can lead to potentially dangerous physical impacts. If you or a loved one struggles with an eating disorder of any kind, it is essential to seek treatment early.

Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are themselves a mental health condition surrounded by misunderstanding and stigma. Despite the opinions of some, eating disorders are not something one “chooses” or something that is “in their head.” Eating disorders are not a voluntary decision. On the contrary, they are among the deadliest mental illnesses (second only to opioid addiction and overdose) and are responsible for the deaths of over ten thousand Americans each year. Additionally, as many as twenty-five percent of people diagnosed with an eating disorder will attempt suicide. Unfortunately, as with many other addictions, only a small percentage of those diagnosed with an eating disorder will ever seek or receive potentially life-saving medical and mental health treatment.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are several eating disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders or DSM. The DSM provides lists of diagnostic criteria used by mental health professionals at a treatment center like Los Angeles Outpatient Center to diagnose the presence and severity of mental health conditions. While there are several possible diagnoses, the most common are forms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the need to stay thin. Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include low body weight, low blood pressure, anxiety, mismatched weight perception, dehydration, and altered eating habits. The Symptoms often associated with anorexia nervosa have a significant and often dangerous impact on both physical and mental health. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recent data indicates as many as 4% of women (of any age) suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime. The average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is around the beginning of puberty. A study of female

teens conducted in 2003 indicated those with anorexia nervosa were 56 times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than those without the disorder. Attentionally, females with anorexia, are twelve times more likely to die from complications associate with anorexia nervosa than women without the illness.

Bulimia nervosa

Different than anorexia, where one severely restricts food intake, someone who struggles with bulimia nervosa will binge on food and then purge the food from their body. This is often done through self-induced vomiting or laxative use. Other common symptoms of bulimia include hunger, anxiety, dental hygiene problems, bad breath, fluctuations in weight, and food aversions. Bulimia nervosa is thought to affect up to three percent of women and less than 0.25 percent of men. Bulimia nervosa is approximately nine times more likely to occur in women than men. The mortality rate linked to bulimia nervosa is around four percent.

Binge Eating Disorder

Although binge eating disorder is sometimes confused with bulimia, they are two different diagnoses. Binge eating disorder is characterized by someone consuming a large amount of food in a short period of time (within a few hours). Unlike bulimia, there is no purging involved after food is consumed. To be classified as a binge eating disorder, this form of excessive food intake must happen at least once per week over a period of three months to be formally diagnosed. Binge eating disorder is (statistically) the most common eating disorder in the United States. It is believed to affect up to five percent of women and two percent of men, although the statistic for males is likely far higher. Binge eating disorder is also the most common form of disordered eating seen in those seeking medically assisted weight loss treatments. In these instances, the rate of occurrence is as high as forty percent.

Eating Disorders and Mental Health

Mental health and disordered eating share several connections. The first and most apparent is that eating disorders are diagnosable mental health conditions. In the absence of or in connection with another co-occurring condition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders provides clear diagnostic criteria for the above and other mental health conditions. These clear diagnostic criteria provide a starting point for mental health providers as they work with their patients to develop treatment plans specific to their unique needs.

In addition to “being” mental health conditions, eating disorders can also have a harmful effect on other areas of mental health. Eating disorders frequently co-occur with depression and anxiety disorders. They may also occur simultaneously with substance use disorders, borderline personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. It is essential to treat both the symptoms of any underlying mental health disorder and the eating disorder simultaneously, as some of the eating disorder symptoms may be caused by or worsened by the other illness.

Eating disorders and depression

Research indicates as many as 75% of people with an eating disorder also experience major depression. Although there is no clear link explaining the relationship between disordered eating and depression, several factors could contribute. While mental illnesses themselves, eating disorders also put people at an increased risk for developing depression or major depressive disorder. Disordered eating has a significant impact on mood. It can lead to negative emotions, negative self-image, negative perception of self-worth, and overall reduced happiness. All of these emotions increase isolation which puts people at a significantly increased of depression.

Eating disorders and anorexia

According to data from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as many as two-thirds of people who struggle with an eating disorder also suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Also, as many as forty-two percent had developed an anxiety disorder during childhood. In almost all cases, this was well before the onset of the symptoms linked to their eating disorder.

In addition to the above statistics, data from research by the National Institute of Mental Health indicate a high rate of co-occurrence (co-morbidity) between eating disorders and what they refer to as “core mental disorders.” The data reports on the co-occurrence rates between anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder with anxiety disorders, mood disorders, impulse control disorders (OCD), and substance use disorders. Also, a category was provided that addressed the co-occurrence of eating disorders with “any’ mental health disorder.

Anxiety disorders were more common among those diagnosed with bulimia nervosa (80.6%); however, a high percentage (47.9%) of those with anorexia nervosa also met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders. Similar outcomes applied for substance use disorders (36.8% of those with bulimia and 27% of those with anorexia). Mood disorders and impulse control disorders also most frequently co-occurred with bulimia (70.7% and 63.8%, respectively).

The Importance of Seeking Dual Diagnosis Treatment

When eating disorders and a mental health condition occur together, it is referred to as a dual diagnosis. Terms you may also hear include co-occurring disorder or co-morbidity. Any of these terms can be used to describe a circumstance where someone experiences the challenges of a mental health condition along with the symptoms of an eating disorder. It does not matter which “occurred” first or if one led to the other. It is important to seek treatment at a treatment center like LA Outpatient Center, where the symptoms of both conditions can be addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment program.

Eating disorders and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety share many common symptoms. In fact, many symptoms overlap, which can make it difficult to adequately diagnose a dual-diagnosis condition. Successful recovery requires a treatment program that

addresses both issues together. Because the conditions are so interconnected, failing to address both does not mean the other will go away or even become manageable outside of the treatment environment. Your successful recovery requires a program that focuses on a wide range of supports, including nutritional therapy, psychotherapy, mindfulness, and relapse prevention education. Each element is essential to helping you learn more about your mental health and how both your mental health and eating disorders impact your physical and psychological well-being. Once you better understand how these illnesses are related, it is possible to work towards developing a healthy relationship with food while practicing relapse prevention skills you can use to maintain your recovery success once treatment ends.

If you struggle with an eating disorder and a co-occurring mental health condition, don’t wait to seek help. People of all ages can struggle with a co-occurring disorder. The most successful treatment outcomes are seen when you seek help from a treatment center specializing in dual diagnosis treatment. Our caring and compassionate team of treatment professionals here at LA Outpatient Center will work with you to design a comprehensive treatment plan based on evidence-based, holistic treatment models proven successful in addressing the symptoms of both disordered eating and a wide range of mental health conditions. If you would like to learn more about our programs and how the team at LA Outpatient Center can help you overcome the mental health challenges related to disordered eating, contact our admissions team today.