An eating disorder is a term that covers a range of conditions involving abnormal or disrupted eating. This may involve over or undereating or eating nonfood items.
Approximately 28.8 million Americans will develop an eating disorder during their lifetime.
The exact cause of eating disorders is often unclear, but sociocultural, biological, and psychological factors influence their development.
Many people may think of anorexia or bulimia when they think of eating disorders. Although these disorders are the most common, there are several other types.
Below, we provide information on some of the most common eating disorders, including their typical signs and symptoms.
Bulimia nervosa, which most people call bulimia, is a condition that typically develops during adolescence or early adulthood.
Individuals with bulimia tend to eat large quantities of food very quickly, which people often call “binge eating” or a “binge.”
After overeating, a person with bulimia typically purges their body of the extra calories. Common purging methods include:
- self-induced vomiting
- taking diuretics
- taking laxatives
Not everyone with bulimia will use these methods of purging. Some people try to counter the high calorie intake by fasting and exercising excessively.
Signs and symptoms
The characteristics of bulimia include the following thoughts, feelings, and behaviors:
- an obsession with body weight and size
- repeat binging episodes that accompany a sense of loss of control
- purging episodes to prevent weight gain
- a general fear of gaining weight
Some people with bulimia lose weight, but others maintain their body weight. In either case, a person may develop the following side effects:
- acid reflux
- a sore or inflamed throat
- tooth decay
- severe dehydration
- electrolyte imbalances that can lead to stroke or heart attack
Help is available
Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.
Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.
Many other resources are also available, including:
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
- F.E.A.S.T., which provides support and educational resources to friends and family who want to help someone living with an eating disorder
Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia, is one of the more well-known eating disorders.
As with bulimia, anorexia
There are two recognized subtypes of anorexia:
- Binge eating and purging type: A person with this type of anorexia typically purges after eating. They may sometimes eat large amounts of food. Alternatively, the person might engage in excessive exercise to burn off their consumed calories.
- Restricting type: People with this type of anorexia do not binge eat. Instead, they turn to dieting, fasting, or overexercising to lose weight.
Signs and symptoms
Typical signs and symptoms of anorexia include:
- very restricted eating habits
- being underweight compared with others of a similar height and age
- a fear of gaining weight, even when already underweight
- an obsession with being thinner
- a distorted view of the body
- basing self-esteem on body weight or shape
- the avoidance of eating in public or with others
- obsessive-compulsive tendencies, in some people
Similar to bulimia or the binge eating type of anorexia, people with binge eating disorder typically consume a large amount of food very quickly. However, they do not restrict their calorie intake at other times or purge the excess food that they consume.
Binge eating carries the risk of weight gain, and many people with this disorder are overweight or have obesity.
Signs and symptoms
A person may have binge eating disorder if they:
- feel a lack of control when eating
- feel shame or disgust when thinking about their binge eating
- consume food in private
Rumination disorder is when a person regurgitates partially digested food and chews it again before either swallowing it or spitting it out. According to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, rumination occurs within 15–30 minutes of swallowing food.
Unlike self-induced purging, rumination is an involuntary reaction.
Rumination disorder can start as early as infancy. Infants who develop rumination often get better without treatment. However, persistent rumination can lead to potentially fatal malnourishment.
Rumination in older children and adults typically requires psychological treatment.
Signs and symptoms
A person with this disorder may experience the following symptoms shortly before regurgitating food:
- a need to burp
- a feeling of pressure or discomfort
Other symptoms of rumination may include:
People with pica crave and consume nonfood items. Examples of such items include:
- laundry detergent
Pica can cause severe and potentially life threatening complications. Examples include:
- stomach irritation
- injury to the digestive tract
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which people previously called a selective eating disorder, is similar to anorexia because it restricts calorie consumption.
Unlike anorexia, however, a person with ARFID does not obsess about their body size or weight gain.
The condition can occur due to a lack of interest in eating, or a person may avoid eating because of the sensory characteristics of food. People with ARFID may also only eat a few foods or textures and cannot try anything new.
ARFID can occur at any age. It may be more challenging to detect in children, who are often fussy eaters. However, a child with ARFID may have delayed growth and development.
An adult with ARFID may experience weight loss and malnourishment. Sometimes, people do not consume enough calories and nutrients to support their essential body functions.
Signs and symptoms
Some signs and symptoms of ARFID include:
- significant weight loss
- stunted growth (in children)
- severe nutrient deficiencies
- a dependence on oral nutritional supplements
- considerable interference with social functioning
Other less common eating disorders include:
- Orthorexia: The primary characteristic of this eating disturbance is an obsession with eating healthful foods.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): A person with OSFED has some of the signs and symptoms of bulimia or anorexia but does not meet the diagnostic criteria for either condition.
- Unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED): A condition in which a person does not meet the criteria for any particular eating disorder but presents with similar symptoms and psychological distress.
- Laxative abuse: Though not technically an eating disorder, laxative abuse involves the excessive use of laxatives to lose weight and become thinner.
- Excessive exercise: People may do an excessive amount of exercise to burn calories and achieve unhealthy weight loss.
While these eating disorders are less well-known than others, they are still severe conditions requiring the same care and attention.
Eating disorders are common among people living in the U.S. Familiarity with the symptoms can help people recognize the disorders in themselves and others.
Ideally, eating disorders require early treatment to prevent health complications and additional psychological issues.
People who suspect that they have an eating disorder should see their doctor, who will be able to direct them to the appropriate healthcare services. In many cases, the proper treatment can help people recover fully.