What do eating disorders have to do with mental health?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions characterized by disturbances in eating behaviors and attitudes towards food, weight, and body image. These disorders often result in significant physical, emotional, and social impairments. There are several types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and OSPED  (Other specified feeding or eating disorder).

Eating disorders are considered mental health disorders because they primarily involve disturbances in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to food, eating, weight, and body image. While they may manifest with physical symptoms and complications, such as weight loss or nutritional deficiencies, the underlying causes and mechanisms are rooted in psychological and emotional factors. Here are several reasons why eating disorders are classified as mental health disorders:

  • Psychological Factors: Eating disorders often involve distorted beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions about food, body image, and weight. Individuals with eating disorders may have a distorted sense of their body size or shape, exhibit intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and engage in maladaptive behaviors to control their weight or shape.
  • Emotional Distress: Eating disorders are frequently accompanied by significant emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. Many individuals use disordered eating behaviors as a way to cope with or numb uncomfortable emotions or to exert a sense of control over their lives.
  • Cognitive Patterns: Cognitive processes, such as rigid thinking patterns, perfectionism, and negative self-talk, play a significant role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders. These cognitive patterns contribute to the individual's preoccupation with food, weight, and body image and reinforce maladaptive behaviors.
  • Biological and Neurobiological Factors: While eating disorders have strong psychological components, they also involve complex interactions between biological, genetic, and neurobiological factors. Neurobiological research suggests that alterations in brain chemistry and neurotransmitter systems may contribute to the development and perpetuation of eating disorders.
  • Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions: Eating disorders commonly coexist with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders (e.g., depression), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance use disorders. Addressing underlying mental health issues is essential for comprehensive treatment and recovery.
  • Impact on Functioning and Well-Being: Eating disorders can have profound effects on individuals' functioning and overall well-being, impacting their physical health, relationships, academic or occupational performance, and quality of life. Left untreated, eating disorders can lead to severe medical complications, disability, and even death.

Given the complex interplay of psychological, emotional, biological, and social factors involved in eating disorders, they are recognized as mental health disorders that require specialized assessment, diagnosis, and treatment by qualified mental health professionals. Effective treatment often involves a multidisciplinary approach that addresses the various dimensions of the disorder, including medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions.

Eating disorders can have serious health consequences, including nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, heart complications, and even death. They often co-occur with other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Getting a diagnosis for an eating disorder typically involves a comprehensive assessment conducted by a healthcare professional, such as a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or eating disorder specialist. Here are the steps typically involved in the diagnostic process:

  • Initial Evaluation: Patients may begin by scheduling an appointment with a healthcare provider to discuss the concerns about eating behaviors, thoughts, and emotions related to food and body image. During this initial evaluation, the healthcare provider will ask questions about the patient’s medical history, eating habits, weight changes, physical symptoms, and emotional well-being.
  • Physical Examination: A physical examination may be performed to assess the patient’s overall health and any potential physical complications associated with disordered eating, such as changes in weight, vital signs, and signs of malnutrition or dehydration.
  • Psychological Assessment: A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, may conduct a psychological assessment to evaluate the patient’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors related to food, weight, and body image. This assessment may include standardized questionnaires and interviews to assess symptoms of eating disorders and other mental health conditions.
  • Diagnostic Criteria: The healthcare provider will compare the patient’s symptoms and experiences to the diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Eating disorders have specific criteria that must be met for a formal diagnosis.
  • Collateral Information: In some cases, the healthcare provider may also gather information from family members, friends, or other individuals who are close to the patient to gain additional insight into eating behaviors and their impact on the patient’s life.
  • Medical Tests: Depending on the specific symptoms and concerns, the healthcare provider may order laboratory tests, such as blood tests, to assess for nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, and other medical complications associated with eating disorders.
  • Collaborative Approach: The diagnostic process for eating disorders often involves collaboration among healthcare professionals from different disciplines, such as medicine, psychology, nutrition, and psychiatry, to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the patient’s symptoms and needs.

Once a diagnosis is made, the healthcare provider will work with the patient to develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to his/her individual needs. Early diagnosis and intervention are critical for improving outcomes and preventing further physical and psychological complications associated with eating disorders.

Treatment plans for eating disorders are typically tailored to the individual's specific needs and may involve a combination of medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions. The goals of treatment are to address the physical, emotional, and behavioral aspects of the disorder, promote healthy eating behaviors, address underlying psychological factors, and prevent relapse. Here are some common components of treatment plans for eating disorders:

Medical Management

  • Monitoring and managing physical health complications associated with the eating disorder, such as nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, and cardiovascular complications.
  • Regular medical monitoring, including weight checks, vital signs assessment, and laboratory tests.
  • Collaboration with medical professionals, such as physicians, dietitians, and other healthcare providers, to address medical concerns and ensure overall health and well-being.

Nutritional Counseling

  • Working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a balanced meal plan tailored to the individual's nutritional needs, preferences, and goals.
  • Education about nutrition, portion sizes, food groups, and the importance of regular eating patterns.
  • Addressing fears, anxieties, and beliefs related to food and body image, and promoting a healthy relationship with food.


  • Individual therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), or other evidence-based approaches, to address underlying psychological factors, dysfunctional thought patterns, and maladaptive behaviors associated with the eating disorder.
  • Group therapy or support groups to provide peer support, normalize experiences, and learn coping strategies and relapse prevention skills.
  • Family therapy to address family dynamics, communication patterns, and support the individual's recovery process.


  • In some cases, medications may be prescribed to address co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which commonly coexist with eating disorders.
  • Medications may also be used to manage specific symptoms or complications associated with the eating disorder, such as antidepressants for depressive symptoms or gastrointestinal medications for digestive issues.

Hospitalization or Residential Treatment

  • For individuals with severe or life-threatening eating disorders, or those who require intensive medical monitoring and support, hospitalization or residential treatment may be necessary.
  • Inpatient or residential programs provide 24-hour medical and psychiatric care, structured meal support, therapy sessions, and a supportive environment for stabilization and intensive treatment.

Continued Support and Aftercare

  • After completing a formal treatment program, ongoing support and aftercare are essential for maintaining recovery and preventing relapse.
  • This may include regular follow-up appointments with healthcare providers, continued therapy or support group participation, and ongoing nutrition counseling.
  • Developing relapse prevention strategies, coping skills, and healthy lifestyle habits to support long-term recovery and well-being.

Overall, treatment for eating disorders requires a multidisciplinary approach involving collaboration among medical professionals, mental health professionals, nutrition experts, and support systems to address the complex nature of these disorders and promote lasting recovery.