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Understanding Eating Disorders

What Does it Mean to Have an Eating Disorder?

People who have eating disorders have a difficult, complicated, and-in many cases-ruptured relationship with food which can manifest itself in a variety of ways including overeating, binge eating, bulimia, compulsive eating, anorexia, and a distorted body image.

Compulsive Eating

Compulsions are often a defense against despair. In other words, often when a person is feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, they may be compelled to engage in an activity that overtly seems soothing, but ultimately is self-destructive. For example, if someone has just heard disappointing news, they may tell themselves browsing at an online clothing store will make them feel better, even though their wardrobe is already overflowing. Or for someone with compulsive eating tendencies, they may tell themselves a little cupcake will make them feel better; however, the little cupcake is often the beginning of what feels like an out-of-control compulsive sugar binge that leaves them feeling much worse.


Overeating is when people have difficulty stopping when they are full. Although this sounds simplistic, people often do not start eating when they first get hungry. By repetitively ignoring their body's cues, they lose touch with the natural signals that let them know when they are full. Many people erroneously associate "full" with stuffed. In actuality, one is full when they are no longer hungry, and can walk away from the table feeling light. It is often easiest to conceptualize if you think of hunger as a continuum from zero to ten. Ideally you should begin eating when you are at a "3," which means you are slightly hungry (if you wait until you are overly hungry, you won't make good decisions) and stop when you are at a "7." Eating accordingly is often a challenge for overeaters, binge eaters, bulimics, and people who have restricted for years. However, this framework for eating in response to hunger and fullness often allows people to break free of the old mindset of making rules for "bad" and "good" eating that have only left them feeling more frustrated and often hopeless.

Binge Eating

Binge Eating is an eating disorder in which one consumes large amounts of food, and often feels unable to stop eating. It is different from the occasional overeating that is indulged in by most people without eating problems. For binge eaters, overeating becomes a repetitive behavior, with incidents occurring more and more frequently-leaving the binger feeling out of control. Awareness of binge eating disorder seems to have become more prevalent in the past few years.


For some individuals with binge eating tendencies, the disorder manifests in an obsessive desire to lose weight that often coincides with a distorted body image and overeating, and is often followed by self-induced purging, vomiting, or fasting. The cycle is often followed by feelings of shame and guilt.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is an eating disorder commonly characterized by trying to maintain a below-normal weight through undereating, and/or overexercising. Anorexia is now found in people as young as eight and as old as 80, of all genders and sexual orientations. People who have anorexia often share the same food obsession that compulsive overeaters and binge eaters have, however their fear of gaining weight encourages them to starve to manage it. Anorexia is best treated in an out-patient setting in its initial stages, or when people are near a safe and normal weight. If one's weight becomes dangerously low, anorexics often need to work with a team of nutritionists, therapists, and doctors in a rehab or a medical facility.

Body Image Issues/Dysmorphia

Body Image Issues also known as Dysmorphia result from a distortion in one's perception of their appearance. There is often an obsessive focus on a perceived flaw. The flaw may be minor or imagined. People with a distorted body image frequently examine their appearance, often compare their appearance with that of others, and sometimes avoid social situations or photos. Body image issues are often bound up with perfectionism. People with perfectionistic tendencies may aspire to a media image that is retouched and unrealistic, even for the people being photographed. For those with eating disorders, especially those with dysmorphia, this sets up an unattainable goal-an expectation of oneself that creates a no-win situation, and typically results in feelings of inadequacy and depression. By examining one's perfectionistic tendencies while recognizing the unrealistic images set up by the media, individuals with dysmorphia can be freed up, and enjoy a new level of pleasure in their body.

Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum, at this stage of research and practice, there are proven methods of helping people with all kinds of eating disorders to stop the destructive cycle.