5.3.1 What are eating disorders?

In the Canadian health system, feeding and eating disorders are diagnosed by medical doctors or psychologists and these diagnoses are guided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.1

Eating disorders are more than just going on a diet to lose weight or trying to exercise every day.2

Young people with eating disorders have extremes in eating behaviour and ways of thinking about eating.2 When a person has an eating disorder, they way they eat and think about food interferes with their life and keeps them from enjoying life and moving forward.1

Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental health problems that can be found among people of all age groups, but they commonly start in the teen years.2

While the causes of eating disorders are not fully understood, there are many societal, familial and individual factors that can influence their development. Young people who are struggling with their identity and self-image can be at risk, as well as those who have experienced a traumatic event. Eating disorders can also be a product of how one has been raised and taught to behave.1

Eating disorders are serious and can be potentially life threatening.

There are different types of eating disorders. Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder when young people reduce the amount they eat to the point that they lose a lot of weight or stop growing. They may engage in excessive exercise.2

Bulimia nervosa is when the young person cycles through binge-eating and purging. It often starts when they go on a diet. Their bodies will then respond by driving them to eat a lot of food in one single sitting (binge eating). This results in their feeling ashamed and anxious and they purge by vomiting, skipping meals, using laxatives or exercising.2

Binge eating disorder is when young people binge eat but do not purge. It may be brought on when the young person has difficulties they are unable to handle. Youth with binge eating disorders are often overweight or obese.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is when people do not eat enough and are undernourished for reasons other that trying to lose weight. For example, it can be due to extreme picky eating or having a traumatic event like almost choking and now being afraid to eat solids and choking again.

According to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15–24 years had an eating disorder.3 The prevalence of anorexia and bulimia is estimated to be 0.3% and 1.0% among adolescent and young women respectively. Prevalence rates of anorexia and bulimia appear to increase during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood.4

1National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Definitions.
1Roscoe C and the Mental Health Information Committee of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Child and Youth Mental Health Information Network. Helping Children and Youth with Eating Disorders: Information for Parents and Caregivers. 2011.
3Government of Canada. (2006). The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada 2006. Cited on NEDIC. Statistics. http://nedic.ca/know-facts/statistics
4Hoek, H. W. (2007). Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia and other eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(4), 389-394. Cited on NEDIC. Statistics. http://nedic.ca/know-facts/statistics

The Ellyn Satter Institute, National Eating Disorder Information Centre and Kelty Eating Disorders are great organizations that have excellent resources on healthy eating, eating disorders and much more for professionals and children, youth and families. Plan to visit these websites for more information.