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Feature Articles: Eating Disorders


Young woman looking into full-length mirrorEating disorders

Greta Hopke, RD, and Candance Gabel, MS, RD, LD, Extension Associate Professor and Assistant Program Director, University of Missouri Extension


More than 50 percent of teenage girls are on a diet or think they should be on a diet. Approximately 3 percent of these teenagers will go too far and become anorexic or bulimic.


An eating disorder is more than not eating or overeating; it occurs when food and eating control a person’s daily routine and entire life. It is typically a sign of other problems. An eating disorder and disordered eating are not the same.


Eating disorders have specific diagnostic criteria, whereas disordered eating has characteristics of an eating disorder, but does not meet the entire diagnostic criteria. However, if left untreated, disordered eating may progress into an eating disorder.


An eating disorder can develop for a variety of reasons, each unique to an individual. The disorder can be triggered by a family crisis, a romantic break-up, problems at school, wanting to be accepted or fit in with a particular group, or it may be due to comments about one’s body or weight from parents, friends, teachers or coaches. Society also plays a role in eating disorder development. Society portrays love, success and happiness with thin, attractive women, signaling to the female population that you must be thin to be successful.


People who struggle with poor self-image are more vulnerable to eating disorders. Individuals with an eating disorder tend to ignore their positive qualities and focus on the negative aspects of their lives. Characteristics of those who develop an eating disorder include: desire for thinness, chronic low self-esteem, low body image and low self image, obsessive striving for perfection and self-critical behavior. Some research shows that eating disorders are more prevalent in middle to upper socio-economic status individuals, however, eating disorders can occur in any race, gender or economic status.


During the development of an eating disorder, an individual may feel that these newly learned eating-control behaviors allow him or her to handle stress or to make up for low self-esteem. Others may feel a sense of power and control. If these behaviors continue without intervention, they will likely become habits. Once a habit becomes harmful and out of control, it is no longer a habit, it is now an obsession, compulsion or addiction. The behavior now has control over the individual. At this point, it can be very difficult to regain control without professional help or medical intervention.


For more information, see additional Food, Fitness and Eating Disorders feature articles or visit the following websites:



Kolodny, N. (2004). The beginner's guide to eating disorder recovery. Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books.

Williams, M. (2005). Nutrition for health, fitness, & sport. 7th Ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Statistics: How many people have eating disorders? (2004). Retrieved Feb. 8, 2005 from Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.'s website at


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