Can Adults Develop Eating Disorders?

People tend to ignore their health in the modern world’s exhausting rat race. More often than not, we are so caught up with our work that we don’t even get the time to have proper meals, let alone get some exercise and maintain a healthy body.

Such a lifestyle inevitably takes a toll on our bodies, and not being able to come to terms with the consequences of such a lifestyle on the body causes body image-related mental health1 disorders.

Excessive weight gain or weight loss due to irregular and unhealthy eating habits and difficulty in accepting one’s body causes eating disorders.

So what are some important things everyone must know about eating disorders? How many types of eating disorders are there? Despite the vulnerability of younger populations, can adults develop eating disorders as well?

Read on as we try to answer these questions and other relevant ones to make you better informed about this category of mental illnesses.

1. What are Eating Disorders?

Alright, we agree that the name is self-explanatory, but let’s just go through some basic things you should know about these mental disorders.

An eating disorder involves faulty behavioral patterns that involve unhealthy eating behaviors that ultimately lead to emotional problems. Apart from this, disordered eating behaviors can also result in serious complications in physical health (such as gaining weight) and social functioning.

A structural view to show Eating disorder. A tree with "eating disorder" written at the center with different words associated with the eating disorder written on the branches
Image by pinktree from Shutterstock

2. How is an Eating Disorder Caused?

Eating disorders occur due to both biological and psychological causes. Some people’s genes make them more vulnerable to eating disorders.

Emotional issues like low self-esteem, distorted body image issues, impulsiveness, and perfectionism also contribute significantly to the emergence of an eating disorder in an individual.

Eating disorders tend to be rampant in the early adulthood years. They commonly occur among younger adults, especially teenage girls and young women.

Family history of eating disorders, excessive stress, presence of other mental health disorders, troubled relationships, frequent dieting, adopting fad diets, or voluntary starvation to lose weight only adds to the risk factors that might cause eating disorders.

An illustration of eating disorder names spelled with scrabbles cubes.
Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash © 2021

3. Types and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Symptoms of eating disorders depend on the type of disorder in question. Eating patterns vary according to the disorder. So eating disorder behaviors might range from excessive eating to eating too little.

3.1. Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa2 is the most common eating disorder associated with an unhealthy obsession with body shape and an intense fear of gaining weight.

This fear of weight gain causes people to adopt extreme measures to maintain the desired body image that adversely affects their physical health and daily life.

To lose weight, people suffering from this eating disorder tend to eat in unhealthily small quantities, use diet aids, purge out the food eaten, and go as far as to starve themselves to a life-threatening extent.

3.2. Bulimia Nervosa

Also known as the binge-purge syndrome3, this eating disorder causes people to lose control over their food intake. Thus, they tend to eat a lot at once and then puke it out.

The episode of binge eating is accompanied by intense guilt about eating too much, which might cause one to gain weight. So the individual resorts to excessive exercise or the use of laxatives to purge the food.

This eating disorder also involves discontentment towards on own body and being too harsh on oneself for flaws that might not even exist.

3.3. Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder patients also tend to consume large quantities of food at a given time. They eat unusually fast and have difficulty judging when to stop.

As a result, individuals suffering from binge eating disorder might continue eating even when they are full or not hungry.

This further leads to guilt and embarrassment for eating too much, ultimately causing the individual to engage in unusual behaviors when in social situations.

An adult woman binge-eating a large burger and other food.
Image by Louis Hansel from Unsplash © 2019

3.4. Rumination Disorder

Apart from the commonly known disorders, other eating disorders include rumination disorders. This eating disorder is characterized by regurgitation of swallowed food. However, this phenomenon might not always be intentional or uncomfortable.

The awareness of the unusual behavior makes an individual avoid food intake. This eating disorder is more common among infants and might result in abnormally low body weight of the individual.

What is Rumination Disorder? | Eating Disorders

3.5. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

This eating disorder develops not because of the fear of gaining weight or distorted body image but because of deliberately avoiding foods with certain characteristics.

The lack of adequate nutrition might result in significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies that might cause other health problems later.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) Signs & Symptoms

4. Can Adults Develop Eating Disorders?

Most eating disorders commonly occur among younger adults. The main reason behind this is the obsession with one’s identity that accompanies the young adult years.

Individuals might take to disordered eating behaviors around this age to attain the desired body image that fits societal and personal expectations.

However, that doesn’t mean that eating disorders cannot occur in older adults. Eating disorders develop in adults as well.

A woman goes through several bodily changes around the menopausal years. This results in them resorting to disordered eating habits to cope with the changes. Most prone to such disorders among older populations are midlife women.

Adults can also develop eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder if they have body image issues.

No one can be fully immune to mental illnesses. The cases with eating disorders are no different. Despite being more common among a certain age group, an eating disorder can affect anyone irrespective of age.

It is crucial to consider the risk factors and warning signs of an eating disorder and seek treatment from a mental health professional to avoid any complications, mental or physical.

An animated illustration of distorted body image. A skinny woman looking at her fat image in the mirror.
Image by Christian Dorn from Pixabay © 2019

5. Eating Disorder Treatment

If you find any symptoms or warning signs of an eating disorder in yourself or your loved ones, seeking treatment as soon as possible is advisable to avoid further complications.

So what is the process of treating eating disorders? The treatment program for an eating disorder involves a combination of psychotherapy4, medications, medical evaluation, nutritional education, and strict monitoring of diet and eating habits.

Apart from addressing the eating disorder, in particular, the treatment also involves tending to the physical consequences of the disorder that might have serious, often fatal, effects on the individual.

The treatment team comprises medical professionals, psychotherapists, dentists, dietitians, and the patient’s family members.

While medical professionals and dentists help with the physical impacts of the eating disorder, psychotherapists help alter faulty behavior patterns.

Dietitians formulate proper and nutritious diet plans. Along with all this, the patient’s family members and loved ones are responsible for ensuring that the patient adheres to the treatment plan.

5.1. Psychotherapy

The essential part of the treatment, the major objectives of psychotherapy in treating eating disorders, are normalizing eating patterns, dealing with stress, improving mood, and informing how to monitor eating behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the type of therapy generally used in such cases. It involves replacing faulty thought and behavior patterns causing the eating disorder with healthy eating habits.

It provides the much-required awareness of distorted thoughts and behaviors to the patient. CBT can also form group therapy, where individuals interact with other people diagnosed with similar disorders.

Apart from CBT5, family therapy helps the near and dear ones of the patient to get a better understanding of the disorder and their role in the treatment process.

A concept of psychotherapy. Two people sitting at a table and talking with coffee mugs in their hands.
Image by Priscilla Du Preez from Unsplash © 2020

5.2. Nutrition Education

Dietitians play the inevitable role of developing a proper eating plan that would help the patient maintain good health.

Nutrition education helps attain proper weight and contributes to the patient’s overall physical health.

It also provides a better understanding of the body that enables the patient to make better and healthier decisions regarding eating habits.

Why Is Nutrition Education Important?

5.3. Medications

In treating eating disorders, the role of medications is limited to providing symptomatic relief.

One might be prescribed antidepressants to manage moods and symptoms like depression or anxiety accompanying an eating disorder. They also help manage abnormal bingeing or purging behaviors.

Medications might also be prescribed to overcome the effects of the eating disorder on the body.

6. The Bottom Line

We tried to answer some pertinent questions about eating disorders, like can adults develop eating disorders? What are the symptoms? How are they treated? We hope it helped you understand eating disorders better.

Share this with your friends to make them better informed about this category of mental disorders. Don’t forget to let us know what we have missed and things worth knowing about eating disorders.

7. Frequently Asked Questions

7.1. What are eating disorders associated with?

Eating disorders can be due to underlying causes including low self-esteem for body image, mental health disorders, substance abuse, or a history of trauma6.

7.2. How can we treat eating disorders?

Psychotherapy is one important way to treat eating disorders. However, medications and proper nutritional education help to encourage eating healthily.

  1. Moreno, Carmen, et al. “How mental health care should change as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The lancet psychiatry 7.9 (2020): 813-824. ↩︎
  2. van Eeden, Annelies E., Daphne van Hoeken, and Hans W. Hoek. “Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.” Current opinion in psychiatry 34.6 (2021): 515. ↩︎
  3. Stice, Eric, et al. “Sequencing of symptom emergence in anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and purging disorder and relations of prodromal symptoms to future onset of these disorders.” Journal of abnormal psychology 130.4 (2021): 377. ↩︎
  4. Stoll, Julia, Jonas Adrian Müller, and Manuel Trachsel. “Ethical issues in online psychotherapy: A narrative review.” Frontiers in psychiatry 10 (2020): 993. ↩︎
  5. Atwood, Molly E., and Aliza Friedman. “A systematic review of enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT‐E) for eating disorders.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 53.3 (2020): 311-330. ↩︎
  6. Coimbra, Raul, et al. “European Society of Trauma and Emergency Surgery (ESTES) recommendations for trauma and emergency surgery preparation during times of COVID-19 infection.” European Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery 46 (2020): 505-510. ↩︎

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