College of Veterinary Medicine

Counseling & Wellness Services

Self-Help Information: Eating Disorders


What are Eating Disorders?

We all worry about food sometimes, overeat at holidays or skip a meal.

In some people, the worry becomes extreme and they live in constant fear of food and fat, often struggling to hide eating patterns they cannot control. When this occurs, an eating disorder may result. Eating Disorders are extreme expressions of a range of weight and food issues experienced by both men and women. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating. All are serious emotional problems that can have life-threatening consequences.

Technically speaking, the "eating" in eating disorder refers to a set of eating habits, weight management practices and attitudes about weight and body shape. The "disorder" means that the eating-related attitudes and behaviors result in (a) loss of self-control and other forms of behavioral inefficiency, (b) obsession, anxiety, guilt, and other forms of misery, (c) alienation from self and others, and (d) physiological imbalances which are potentially life-threatening.

Anorexia Nervosa

The defining features of this disorder are

(a) an intense and irrational fear of body fat and weight gain,

(b) an iron determination to become thinner and thinner, and

(c) a misperception of bodyweight and shape to the extent that the person may feel or see "fat" even when emaciation is clear to others.

These psychological characteristics contribute to drastic weight loss and defiant refusal to maintain a healthy weight for height and age. Food, calories, weight, and weight management dominate the person’s life, and woe to anyone who tries to disrupt this private system.

The symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa include:

  • Refusal to maintain weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height and age
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
  • Distorted body image
  • In females, loss of three consecutive menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape
  • Bulimia Nervosa

    This disorder is characterized by self-perpetuating and self-defeating cycles of binge-eating and purging. During a "binge" the person consumes a large amount of food in a rapid, automatic, and helpless fashion. This may anesthetize hunger, anger, and other feelings, but it eventually creates physical discomfort and anxiety about weight gain. Thus, the person "purges" the food eaten, usually by inducing vomiting and by resorting to some combination of restrictive dieting, excessive exercising, laxatives, and diuretics.

    The term nervosa reminds us that people suffering from bulimia are similar to those with Anorexia Nervosa. Both may have a distorted body image, an intense fear of fat, and the conviction that a slender body shape is absolutely crucial for self-acceptance.

    The symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa include:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge
  • Purging after a binge (vomiting, use of laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, excessive exercise, fasting)
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape
  • Other Eating Disorders

    A significant number of people with "eating problems" do not quite fit the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. However, there is substantial disagreement about the nature and labeling of these "other" eating disorders. Clearly there are some people who abuse vomiting and/or exercise without bingeing as forms of weight management, while there are others who indulge in repetitive episodes of bingeing without purging. Compulsive overeating is characterized primarily by periods of impulsive gorging or continuous eating. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.

    What Causes Eating Disorders?

    Eating disorders arise from a combination of long-standing psychological, interpersonal, and social conditions. Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as troubled family and personal relationships, may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Our culture, with its unrelenting idealization of thinness and the "perfect body" is often a contributing factor.

    Once started, eating disorders may become self-perpetuating. Dieting, bingeing and purging help some people to cope with painful emotions and to feel as if they are in control of their lives. Yet, at the same time, these behaviors undermine physical health, self-esteem, and a sense of competence and control.

    What are the Warning Signs?

  • A marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition
  • The development of abnormal eating habits such as severe dieting, preference for strange foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtime, or secretive bingeing
  • An intense preoccupation with weight and body image
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising
  • Self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, or laxative diet pill, or diuretic abuse
  • Feelings of isolation, depression, or irritability
  • (The above information was adapted from material produced by Dr. Michael Levine, Dr. Margo Maine and Eating Disorder and Prevention, Inc.).


    Need Additional Help?

    Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling for these and related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary Students ONLY). For more information or to schedule an appointment call or e-mail:

    Anne LaFrance, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
    alafrance@vetmed.wsu.edu
    (509) 335-4607
    135A McCoy Hall

    NOTE:  The information contained in these self help documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care.  Neither the authors, Washington State University nor the College of Veterinary Medicine assume liability for injury incurred by following the information presented in these self-help documents
    Last Edited: May 12, 2014 9:22 AM   

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