Is there a link between eating disorders and mental health?
Yes—in fact, eating disorders are typically a direct result of mental health challenges. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, 80.6 percent of adults who have an anxiety disorder also struggle with an eating disorder.
The link between eating disorders and mental health is particularly relevant for young adults. Young women and men are facing an escalating mental health crisis, reporting the highest anxiety and depression rates of any generation. Contributing factors include the pressure of finding a purpose in life, feelings of isolation, body-image issues, and low self-esteem, exacerbated by excessive social media use. These mental health issues often catalyze co-occurring disorders—such as eating disorders, substance abuse, social anxiety, and self-harm.
Symptoms & Causes
What causes an eating disorder?
Most researchers believe that eating disorders are caused by a combination of psychological, genetic, biological, and social factors. At their root, eating disorders are not really about body image or eating habits. Rather, they are symptoms of underlying issues—most often depression, trauma, or anxiety. Controlling food intake becomes a form of self-medication—a way to manage the pain and discomfort and feel a sense of control.
When such underlying issues are present, lifestyle and circumstances can trigger eating disorders. For young adults, going away to college and living on their own for the first time can lead to unhealthy eating habits as a result of convenience, budgetary restrictions, or a change in lifestyle. In addition, young adulthood is a time when body-image issues and social comparison are front and center, increasing the risk of an eating disorder.
Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
Behavioral signs of eating disorders in young adults include making excuses to avoid eating, always maintaining a strict diet, over-exercising, eating alone, compulsive use of laxatives or diet pills, and an obsession with caloric intake. Physically, the biggest warning signs are unhealthy loss or gain of weight, constipation or vomiting, skin rashes, loss of hair, insomnia, and repeated weight cycling.
Know the Facts
91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, and 22 percent dieted “often” or always.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Eating Disorders
Every young adult has different needs and a different background. Many have tried mental health programs in the past, and it failed to make a difference. Others have simply lost focus or become overwhelmed by the pressures of growing up. Once an eating disorder has been diagnosed, it’s important to seek professional treatment. Examples of eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Rumination Disorder
- Avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder.
What is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and how is it related to eating disorders?
Co-occurring mental health disorders are usually the underlying cause of an eating disorder—for example, body dysmorphic disorder. Often beginning as early as 12 years old, body dysmorphia is an obsessive disorder consisting of extreme negative feelings toward your physical appearance, contributing to low self-worth. What can begin as lack of self-esteem and poor body image issues can spiral into the obsessive preoccupation with certain body parts that characterizes dysmorphia. Over time, these feelings can become an intense dislike for one’s body that is unrelated to weight. Rather, young adults with body dysmorphic disorder focus on perceived imperfections, which causes intense emotional distress and can be a factor in developing an eating disorder.
What is orthorexia, and when can being “too healthy” become a serious concern?
Another common type of eating disorder is orthorexia, which describes the obsession with maintaining a strict regime of “healthy” or “clean” eating. It is difficult to diagnose this eating disorder without clinical attention, because it can easily be confused with good eating habits. Individuals who need orthorexia support may not even realize that they have an eating disorder. Orthorexia causes individuals to restrict the variety of food in their diet, which can lead to malnutrition. Further, orthorexia causes a deep emotional dependence on body image, self-worth, and self-esteem in a way that restricts normal daily functioning.
Common symptoms of orthorexia include:
- Compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- Obsessive focus on eating healthy
- Anxiety, shame, and fear about gaining weight
- Severe dietary restrictions
- Perfectionism and the need for control.
Treatments for Eating Disorders
Newport Institute offers a variety of eating disorder treatment options depending on the type of eating disorder. Given the connection between eating disorders and mental health, treatments for eating disorders include psychotherapy in addition to medical monitoring and nutritional counseling.
Know the Facts
A review of nearly 50 years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any other psychiatric disorder.
Allowing an eating disorder to go undiagnosed or unaddressed can lead to heart disease, osteoporosis, or even organ failure. Aside from medical risks, refusing eating disorder treatment can have a detrimental impact on relationships with family and friends. The distress that often accompanies eating disorders can also affect performance in an academic or professional setting.
Eating disorders are treatable, and early diagnosis often leads to better outcomes. Newport Institute’s multidisciplinary team includes therapists, dietitians, psychiatrists, and experiential therapists who together support a young adult’s journey to recovery.
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Care at Newport Institute
At Newport Institute we believe that the young adults who come for us seeking treatment are not coming to get a prescribed modality. They come to us for a path to healing.
We have over 300 clinicians, doctors, psychologists, social workers and counselors, providing treatment in a variety of modalities – clinical and experiential. When we are assessing our young adults and placing them with the right therapist, we want to make sure that that therapist has the tool to best serve the them and their family on that path to healing.
Newport Institute Founder and Chairman
Change Your Relationship With Food—Eating Disorder Treatment at Newport Institute
Our eating disorder treatment programs teach you how to accept yourself, make lifestyle changes, and avoid common triggers of eating disorders. Though difficult, making changes to your lifestyle is one of the most powerful parts of the treatment plan. Our team of nutritionists and therapists will help you develop mindful eating habits that can evolve with lifestyle changes and maturity. At Newport Institute, we believe that the meal is medicine, and we are dedicated to helping you change your relationship with food as an essential part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Eating disorders carry the highest death rate of all mental health disorders, through suicide or medical complications. As a result, they are far deadlier than any of the others.
Dr. Barbara Nosal. PhD, LMFT, LADC
Chief Clinical Officer
Medical and Teams
At Newport Institute, our staff’s clinical expertise is matched only by their compassion and desire to see young people thrive. With more than 500 years’ combined clinical and therapeutic experience, Newport Institute’s team of psychiatrists, family therapists, nurse practitioners, counselor, equine therapists, art therapists, music therapists, adventure therapists, registered dietitians, nutritionists, mentors, and private tutors are passionate about nurturing clients’ self-worth and self-acceptance as they do the work of healing.
Marks of Quality Care
Our innovative approach to mental healthcare earns accolades from press around the world, but it is our dedication to our client success that has helped us achieve accreditation from The Joint Commission, exceed licensing standards of care, and nurture affiliations with the following: