Eating disorders are characterized by a serious disturbance in the self-regulation of eating, weight maintenance, and nutrition maintenance behaviors. This disturbance can manifest through a variety of symptoms, including undereating, overeating, bingeing, purging, body image disturbance, over-exercise, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse, ipecac use, body-checking, eating rituals, chewing and spitting out food, fear of specific foods, and an over-valuation of body for determining sense of self.

Though the active symptoms of many patients with eating disorders fluctuate and vary over the course of the illness, certain symptoms tend to coalesce around three main diagnostic categories. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by serious caloric restriction, weight loss, amenorrhea, and intense fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of objective food binges accompanied by a sense of loss of control over eating as well as recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain, such as vomiting, excessive exercise, and laxative use. In contrast, binge-eating disorder is a “not otherwise specified” eating disorder that is characterized by recurrent objective food binges without compensatory behaviors.

Other mixed-symptom eating disorders that do not meet the full criteria for either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are given a diagnosis of Eating Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (ED NOS). While behavioral indicators of an eating disorder may not be as severe in ED NOS patients, these individuals may still suffer from severe cognitive preoccupation with and emotional distress caused by food intake, weight, and shape.

Eating disorders have serious medical and psychological complications, even when patients appear to be at normal weight. Though eating disorders occur most commonly in adolescent and young adult Caucasian females, there is an increasing incidence of these illnesses in males and across all ethnicities and ages.

About the author: Licensed psychologist Dr. Abigail McNally maintains a private practice in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she conducts psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy, DBT-informed psychotherapy, and integrative therapy. In addition to a general focus on anxiety and depression, Dr. McNally maintains particular expertise in the treatment of eating disorders, personality disorders, and trauma. She is the former Assistant Director of the Laurel Hill Inn Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Center as well as the former Director of Post-Doctoral Training at Two Brattle Center.