A Nurse’s Guide to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a problem that can impact people of both genders regardless of income or ethnicity. This is a type of mental illness in which an individual develops an abnormal relationship with food and often has a distorted view of their body or appearance. This is a serious problem that can affect a person’s physical appearance and health. In the long term, eating disorders may even be fatal. Because of this, nurses, family and friends, and other medical professionals must understand what these disorders are and how they impact those who are affected by them.

fork and knife wrapped in measuring tape

The phrase “eating disorder” is used in reference to a number of different types of eating problems. Some of the more common and easily recognized of these disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating or binge eating.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a condition in which a person has a fear of gaining weight. When they look at their body, their perception is distorted. As a result, even people who are extremely underweight for their height and body structure may see themselves as obese. With anorexia, they may eat a very small amount of food or expel what they do eat either by forcing themselves to vomit or by taking laxatives. In some cases, a person may exercise excessively in an effort to burn away any calories. People often develop anorexia nervosa as teens or pre-teens, and it is most common in females.

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia regularly binge on high-calorie foods. Binge eating can be described as episodes of out-of-control eating, often in secret, followed by purging to prevent weight gain. When a person has bulimia, they understand that their actions are not normal, and they may also purge the food out of a sense of self-disgust, shame, or guilt. As with anorexia, purging may involve vomiting, laxative use, or exercise that’s strenuous and excessive. A person who has bulimia typically has a normal body weight, although they may see themselves as overweight.

Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Disorder

“Binge eating” and “compulsive overeating” are often used interchangeably. People who are binge eaters are often compelled to eat and feel as if it is beyond their control to stop, even if they are full and uncomfortable. While eating, they consume large amounts of food over a short period and feel intense shame over their lack of control. This quick and large consumption of food occurs regularly, at least once a week. Unlike bulimia, binge eating and compulsive overeating do not involve purging, and people do gain weight from it and can become obese as a result. It differs from simply overeating, which most people have done on occasion, in that binge eating happens on a regular basis and is a source of shame. In the U.S., binge eating is arguably the most common of the eating disorders.


Scientists and researchers have been unable to successfully pinpoint the exact causes of eating disorders. They do, however, believe that there are several factors that may cause people to suffer from this form of mental illness. For some people, biology plays a role: Their genes can impact whether they develop an eating disorder, or there may be an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that control a person’s appetite and digestion. This is often true if someone’s immediate family members also have an eating disorder. A person’s eating disorder may also be due to psychological causes such as low self-esteem, impulsive behavior, feeling a lack of control over one’s life, loneliness, relationship problems, anger, or anxiety.

Social and environmental factors are thought to play a large part in causing eating disorders, too. Popular culture places a high value on having a certain body shape, one that has minimal body fat. These ideal or perfect body types appear in movies and television, magazines, and billboards. Constant exposure to these images impacts how both genders feel about their bodies and how they believe others view them. As a result, people can feel an unnatural pressure to look like these ideals. Stress from school, one’s job, or life in general can also contribute to these problems.


Nurses are typically expected to educate their patients on how to care for themselves and potentially prevent health problems. While there is no strategy that can guarantee that a person will not develop an eating disorder, there are certain behaviors that may reduce their risk. Adopting healthy eating habits can improve one’s relationship with food, and in households with children, it can help to teach kids about a balanced diet, proper portion sizes, and that healthy foods can be appealing and delicious. Paying attention to hunger and not emotion is also an important rule to follow.

People should learn to appreciate their body size and appearance. One way to do that is to identify and accentuate features or body parts that they like and avoid criticizing their body. Working out with a friend or family member can help encourage regular exercise and is the ideal way to shed unwanted pounds in a safe and healthy manner. Around kids, parents should also stress a positive self-image, get kids outdoors and active, and never criticize anyone, including their children, for their body shape or size. Individuals should be advised to talk to their doctor if they have any concerns about food, the appearance of their body, or their thoughts regarding their appearance. Reducing stress can also help to prevent eating disorders.

Resources for Help

In addition to speaking to nurses, people can gather information and seek help in a number of other ways. There is a wealth of information online that one can use to assist their friends and loved ones if they need help. These resources include hotlines as well as chat rooms and forums.