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Can You Have an Eating Disorder Without Body Image Issues?

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Many people believe that eating disorders and body image are always tied together. While that may be the case, not everyone who has an eating disorder also struggles with body image issues. The converse is true as well: An individual can have body image issues without having an eating disorder. In today’s blog post, I want to take a closer look at the relationship between eating disorders and body image and also consider a few instances when an eating disorder exists separate from body image concerns.

Did you know that body image issues affect up to 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men?

Additionally, 61 percent of adolescents report feeling unhappy with their body in some way. It’s easy to see then that anyone — regardless of gender, race, age, or economic status — can experience body dissatisfaction. It’s also important to note that an estimated 9 percent of the United States population will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime.

For some individuals, body image concerns build the foundation for an eating disorder. They may try to “fix” their negative self-image with dieting and disordered eating behaviors. Over time, this approach can morph into an eating disorder.

Despite popular beliefs, eating disorders are about more than food, body image, or “thinness.”

They involve numerous emotional, psychological, biological, and genetic factors. For instance, emotional stress or psychological trauma may lead to the development of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism or attempt at control. Biologically, other mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety, may increase the risk of eating disorders. From a genetic perspective, a family history of eating disorders may also increase the likelihood of their development in future generations.

Of course, some eating disorders are more closely linked to body image than others. Individuals with anorexia, for instance, are often motivated by their desire to lose weight through food restriction, obsessive exercise, or both. Many individuals even report a fear of gaining weight. Although individuals diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) also restrict their intake, they rarely report concerns about body size or shape. Similarly, orthorexia, or an obsession with “healthy” eating, centers around only eating certain foods but isn’t often motivated by body dissatisfaction.

In conclusion, body image issues should never serve as a single indicator of whether or not someone is struggling with an eating disorder.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms outside body concerns, including (but not limited to) changes in food behaviors and eating patterns, excessive exercise, social withdrawal or isolation, and/or sudden weight loss or weight gain. If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, don’t wait to seek help! Research indicates that early treatment leads to the best outcomes.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, CEDS at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.

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