MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (02/27/2023) — Eating disorders can affect people from all walks of life. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 28.8 million people in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Starting February 27, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is an annual campaign that focuses on educating the public and providing support to individuals who struggle with eating disorders along with their loved ones. 

Drs. Carol Peterson and Lisa Anderson with the University of Minnesota Medical School talk about the warning signs, misconceptions and health effects of eating disorders. 

Q: What are the most common eating disorders?

Dr. Peterson: Some of the most common eating disorders are characterized by binge eating behavior. In research and clinical practice, we define binge eating as the consumption of an unusually large amount of food while experiencing a sense of loss of control. When someone is binge eating, they often feel like they can’t stop eating and feel compelled to continue eating. Binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa — in which binge eating is accompanied purging — are two types of eating disorders characterized by binge eating. 

Other types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, are characterized by restrictive eating and often excessive exercise. Individuals with eating disorders also find themselves preoccupied with thoughts about eating, weight and shape. Youth and adults with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder find that eating is difficult because of sensory experiences or fears about eating, but do not tend to be preoccupied by concerns about body shape or weight.

Q: What are the signs of an eating disorder?

Dr. Anderson: Some of the observable signs of an eating disorder include weight loss, avoidance of eating, frequent self-weighing, excessive or driven exercise and frequent comments about weight, shape and eating. Although usually secretive, binge-eating and purging behaviors may also be observed. Other possible signs of eating disorders include social isolation, depression and anxiety — all of which can occur along with eating disorders.

Q: What are some misconceptions about eating disorders? 

Dr. Peterson: One common misconception is that eating disorders are untreatable. A number of evidence-based treatments, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be effective in helping people recover. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a common form of talk therapy that is goal-oriented and structured. 

Another misconception is that eating disorders are not serious conditions. They can be dangerous and at times fatal. Research has helped us understand that the medical and psychological severity of an eating disorder can not be determined by a person’s weight status. In spite of misconceptions, individuals with higher weight bodies can be as severely ill and at risk of medical complications as those who are underweight. Finally, the causes of eating disorders are often oversimplified. Eating disorders are complex conditions that are caused and maintained by a combination of genetic, neurobiological, psychological and environmental factors. Individuals of all ages, race/ethnicity status, sexual orientation, gender identity and backgrounds can develop eating disorders.

Q: What are the health effects of having an eating disorder? How can they be treated? 

Dr. Peterson: Eating disorders have substantial medical risks including cardiological, endocrinological, gastrointestinal, osteoporosis, renal and dental. Additional health risks can include osteoporosis, anemia and other effects of malnourishment. Eating disorders are often accompanied by anxiety and depression as well as an elevated risk of suicide. Eating disorder treatments require comprehensive medical monitoring as well as suicide risk assessments. Treatment often includes multidisciplinary teams to address the medical, psychological and nutritional components of eating disorders.

Q: What is the University of Minnesota doing to advance research in this area? 

Dr. Anderson: Our team is focused on two main areas of research. First, we are working to identify the neurobiological and psychological factors that maintain eating disorders. For example, our current research uses neuroimaging with fMRI to understand how the brain responds to images of food and other stimuli. We are trying to determine if brain signals indicate reward, disgust, fear or some combination.  

We are also working to develop treatments. Our team is working with academic institutions nationwide to design treatment interventions that target the neurobiological and psychological eating disorder maintenance factors that we are identifying through our neuroimaging studies. One of our recent studies is an innovative psychotherapy treatment adapted for eating disorders that targets brain reward systems to increase the experience of positive emotion for individuals with anorexia nervosa. By combining these two types of research, we hope to continue improving our ability to successfully treat and prevent eating disorders.

Individuals interested in contributing to eating disorders research can use this link to see if they’re eligible to participate in ongoing research studies being conducted at the University of Minnesota: is.gd/mcedr

Dr. Carol Peterson is a professor and adult psychologist at the U of M Medical School. She sees patients at University of Minnesota Physicians St. Louis Park Clinic Interventional Psychiatry Program and at University of Minnesota Health West Building Psychiatry Clinic. Her research focuses on identifying novel approaches to treat eating disorders, particularly by targeting the psychological and neurobiological factors that maintain these conditions. 

Dr. Lisa Anderson is an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at the U of M Medical School. Her areas of clinical expertise include the treatment of anxiety and eating disorders, including the adaptation and use of exposure-based cognitive-behavioral interventions for eating disorders. Her primary research interests include the identification of biological and behavioral mechanisms that promote eating disorder symptom development and maintenance. 


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