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The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Trauma

Young woman looking unhappy as she looks at herself in the mirror

The relationship between eating disorders and trauma isn’t coincidental. If you experience trauma, cannot process it, and don’t seek treatment, you can develop psychological issues. These issues may include body image problems and eating disorders.

Understanding Disordered Eating 

People associate eating disorders with unhealthy food behaviors, but they extend far beyond nutrition. They’re not entirely about food. Instead, they are a way to control a specific aspect of your life after experiencing trauma. They often start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape. But they are complex mental health conditions that require medical and psychological intervention. In severe cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and death if left untreated. 

Types of Disordered Eating

Anorexia and bulimia are the most common and more well-known eating disorders. But there are other types of disordered eating. 

Bulimia Nervosa 

Bulimia Nervosa typically develops in adolescence or early adulthood. If you have bulimia, you tend to ingest excessive amounts of food rapidly. This behavior is “binge eating” or “binging.” After a binge, a person with bulimia takes steps to rid their body of the calories they ingested. They do this by self-induced vomiting or taking diuretics or laxatives which is known as “purging.” It’s also not uncommon to undertake excessive fasting after a binge. 

Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Obsession with body weight and type
  • Repeat binging that feels like a complete loss of control
  • Purging episodes that prevent weight gain
  • Constant fear of gaining weight
  • Acid reflux
  • Sore or inflamed throat
  • Tooth decay
  • Severe dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to severe health conditions

Anorexia Nervosa

Extreme food restriction is the primary symptom of anorexia. With this disorder, people typically diet, fast, and exercise excessively to lose weight.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Extremely restricted eating habits
  • Being underweight for age and height
  • Fearful of gaining weight
  • Obsession with thinness
  • Distorted body view
  • Measuring self-esteem by body shape and size
  • Avoidance of public eating
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior 

Binge Eating Disorder 

People with binge eating disorder consume a large amount of food quickly. 

Symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating large amounts of food rapidly with a sense of loss of control
  • Experiencing distress, shame, guilt, or disgust after a binge
  • Preferring to eat in a private setting

Rumination Disorder

Rumination is a newly recognized eating disorder. It involves regurgitating previously chewed and swallowed food, then chewing it again, and either swallowing it or spitting it out. It typically happens within 30 minutes of the last meal. Rumination is voluntary, unlike reflux. 

Symptoms of rumination disorder include:

  • Nausea
  • Needing to burp
  • Feelings of discomfort after a meal
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation 
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Chronic headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Malnourishment 

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder 

Once known as “Feeding Disorder of Infancy and Early Childhood,” this disorder involves a distaste for foods with specific smells, colors, textures, and tastes. Those experiencing this disorder are not merely picky eaters, and it’s not only a childhood condition. The sensory characteristics of the food physically repulse those with ARFID.

Signs and symptoms of ARFID include:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Stunted growth in children
  • Severe nutrient deficiencies
  • Dependence on nutritional supplements
  • Significant interference with body functionality

Regardless of specific symptoms and characteristics of the eating disorder, eating disorders are often a way to cope with trauma. While diet culture may partially be to blame, an eating disorder is rarely about food. 


Yound woman at the table with her hands tied by a tape measure and hiding her head in her handsThe Relationship between Eating Disorders and Trauma

Trauma disrupts the functioning of the nervous system, making it difficult or impossible to regulate emotions. You may feel guilt, shame, or even emotionally numb if you have an eating disorder. It’s not uncommon to feel disconnected from your thoughts and feelings, leading to a cycle of harmful behaviors. 

Behaviors like binge eating and food restriction are coping mechanisms to help people feel in control of their lives. You might use the behaviors to fill a void, cleanse, provide comfort or relief, or disassociate with trauma.

Many factors can contribute to a person developing an eating disorder. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the root cause of your eating disorder for treatment to be effective. Experienced mental health professionals understand the factors that may contribute to the disorder.

In one clinical study of women diagnosed with an eating disorder, 70% experienced a traumatic event. Physical and mental reactions to distressing or disturbing events overwhelm your ability to cope. 

It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to result from body shame from childhood sexual abuse. When you experience body shame, this can spark habits that destroy your body. 

Seeking Trauma-Informed Care for Disordered Eating 

The best eating disorder treatment programs use comprehensive care that evaluates and treats all facets of your life. 

A high-quality eating disorder treatment center is critical for helping individuals to:

  • Identify symptoms that are the core drivers of the eating disorder
  • Manage eating disorder symptoms
  • Regain and maintain a healthy weight
  • Enhance physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing

Acknowledging the relationship between eating disorders and trauma can be challenging for those with the condition. But getting help and managing your eating disorder is a greater challenge. The first step is finding a medical professional whom you trust. 


Integrative Life Center offers various treatments for eating disorders to create an individual plan that best helps you heal. Contact ILC to learn more about how our treatment teams ensure a unified approach to a healing process that is right for you. 


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