Eating Disorders: Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Marney A. White, PhD, MS
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Eating disorders are serious conditions characterized by eating behaviors that some may consider unhealthy. They can have severe implications on a person’s physical and emotional health. People with eating disorders may be overly concerned about their weight or body shape. Due to this, they may skip meals, induce vomiting, misuse laxatives, or show other similar behaviors. Research suggests that about 1 in 20 people in the United States have an eating disorder at some point during their lifetime.

This article explains everything you need to know about different eating disorders. It also describes the symptoms, causes, and treatment options related to each one.

What is an eating disorder? 

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An eating disorder is a severe condition related to serious disturbances in eating behaviors. People with these conditions are usually preoccupied with food, body weight, or body shape. Because of this, they may avoid food, induce vomiting, misuse laxatives, or exhibit other similar behaviors.

Eating disorders can cause a pattern of distressing thoughts. They can also affect a person’s physical well-being and social involvement. In their most severe state, eating disorders can be fatal.

In the U.S., almost 29 million people will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life.

Who develops them? 

Eating disorders typically occur in teenagers and young adults. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one 2007 study determined the median age range of onset to be 18–21 years.

The same study reported a gender imbalance in the prevalence of eating disorders, with eating disorders being less common among males than they are among females.

What causes an eating disorder? 

The exact causes of eating disorders are unclear, but they usually arise from a combination of factors. Some research suggests that eating disorders typically occur with other psychological conditions, such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Other studies indicate that genes and heritability can also contribute.  

Additional possible causative factors may include:

  • personality traits, such as neuroticism and perfectionism
  • peer pressure
  • alcohol and drug misuse problems

Anorexia nervosa 

Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition marked by an intense fear of gaining weight.

A person with the condition will take extreme measures to lose weight even if they are already underweight. They may avoid food, exercise excessively, induce vomiting, or use laxatives to rid themselves of food.

Anorexia nervosa can lead to self-starvation and has one of the highest mortality rates of any mental health condition.

What are the types of anorexia? 

There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa.

  • Restricting type: This involves a person eating very little food in order to lose weight. They may also avoid certain foods entirely.
  • Binge eating or purging type: This involves a person eating a large amount of food in a short time, inducing vomiting, or both. They may also use laxatives or diuretics to remove food from the body.

Symptoms 

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa can include:

  • being very underweight
  • heartburn
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • difficulty eating in public
  • constipation 

Complications 

Severe anorexia nervosa can cause:

Read more about anorexia nervosa here.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a condition characterized by a feeling of not being able to control how much you eat.

People with the condition binge eat to the point of gut discomfort and then purge to compensate for the calories they consumed.

Bulimia nervosa is different from the binge eating or purging anorexia subtype. This is because it includes both recurrent binge eating and compensatory behaviors, such as vomiting, laxative misuse, or excessive exercise.

There are no weight criteria for a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa. People with this condition can be overweight or have a moderate weight.

Symptoms of bulimia nervosa 

Symptoms of bulimia nervosa can include:

  • feeling the need to purge after eating to compensate for the calories you consumed
  • dizziness
  • a chronic sore throat from repeated vomiting
  • heartburn and acid reflux from repeated vomiting
  • tooth decay from repeated vomiting
  • diarrhea

Complications 

In rare cases, bulimia nervosa can lead to severe complications, such as:

Read more about bulimia nervosa here.

What is a binge eating disorder?

A binge eating disorder is usually characterized by frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food in a short time. There is also a feeling of a loss of control over the eating episode.

Symptoms of a binge eating disorder

Symptoms of a binge eating disorder may include:

  • an urge to keep eating even when you are full
  • a feeling of guilt after eating
  • a need to isolate when eating

Complications

Binge eating can cause:

Read more about binge eating here.

What are other eating disorders? 

There are many other types of eating disorders. They include:

  • Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder: This involves a person severely limiting the amount and type of food they eat. It can cause significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Pica: This involves a person eating non-food items, such as metal, paper, and chalk. It can have severe health implications, such as intestinal blockages.
  • Rumination: This involves repeatedly regurgitating food after eating. It can cause bad breath, weight loss, and stomachaches. Rumination typically occurs in infants and people with intellectual disabilities.

When to contact a doctor

Eating disorders can have severe physical, emotional, and social implications. They can also trigger symptoms that disrupt your quality of life.

Seek medical advice if you or a loved one experiences issues with food that some may consider unhealthy.

How do you treat an eating disorder? 

Eating disorders are usually treatable. In fact, you can make a full recovery if you undergo therapy. Examples of such therapies include:

  • Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy, this treatment involves talking with a mental health professional to help you identify and manage triggers of unhealthy behaviors. It can also help you improve your eating habits.
  • Nutritional counseling: This involves working with a dietitian or nutritionist to help you make healthy diet choices. The therapy focuses on improving your eating habits and overall wellness.
  • Family-based therapy: This is a type of talk therapy in which the whole family is invited to join the discussion. It is a go-to treatment option for children and adolescents.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This helps you recognize and change unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors. It can also improve your coping skills.
  • Medications: Doctors may also administer antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers to help people with eating disorders cope with emotional distress.

Lifestyle changes 

Some lifestyle changes may quicken your recovery from an eating disorder. They include:

  • refraining from tracking your weight 
  • getting some moderate exercise
  • practicing yoga and meditation
  • avoiding drugs and alcohol 

How do doctors diagnose eating disorders?

To find out if you have an eating disorder, your doctor will assess your symptoms. They will also perform a physical exam to check for signs of a physical health condition.

If there is still uncertainty, your doctor may set you up with a psychological self-assessment test. This involves answering some questions related to your eating habits.

Everything a doctor needs to diagnose an eating disorder is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a comprehensive mental health resource from the American Psychiatric Association.

Summary

Eating disorders are serious conditions characterized by eating behaviors that others may consider unhealthy. They can have severe implications on a person’s physical and emotional health.

Common types include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders.

Eating disorders can trigger symptoms such as diarrhea, depression, heartburn, and constipation. In some cases, they can also cause organ failure, seizures, muscle weakness, heart attack, and death.

To treat the condition, a doctor may recommend talk therapies such as CBT and medications such as antidepressants.

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Medical Reviewer: Marney A. White, PhD, MS
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 29
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