Eating Disorders

We often hear “she’s anorexic” or “he binge eats,” said about people, but while these phrases may be easy to say what they imply is complicated. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences.[1] In the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).[2] Read on to learn more.

Definition of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, include extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. They are present when a person experiences severe disturbances in their eating behavior, such as extreme reduction of food intake or extreme overeating, or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape.[1,3]

Types of Eating Disorders

The following are types of eating disorders:[4]

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a type of eating disorder characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory measures to counter the binge eating.

Bulimia Nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS.) A person does not have to be diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder to have an eating disorder. An eating disorder can include a combination of signs and symptoms but not meet the full criteria of one disorder.

Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders

The signs and symptoms vary depending on the type of eating disorder. Below are some symptoms for each disorder.[5]

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Refusal to eat and denial of hunger
  • Fear of eating in public
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Flat mood or lack of emotion
  • Irritability
  • Negative or distorted self-image
  • Social withdrawal
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Excessive exercise
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Thin appearance
  • Soft, downy hair present on the body
  • Dry skin
  • Frequently being cold
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure

Bulimia Nervosa

  • An unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • A distorted, excessively negative body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling that one can’t control her eating behavior
  • Eating until the point of discomfort or pain, often with high-fat or sweet foods
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Going to the bathroom after eating or during meals
  • Constant dieting or fasting
  • Laxative use
  • Excessive exercise
  • Abnormal bowel functioning
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Swollen salivary glands in the cheeks
  • Sores in the throat and mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sores, scars or calluses on the knuckles or hands
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation
  • Possible drug or alcohol abuse

Binge Eating Disorder

  • Eating to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Eating much more food during a binge episode than during a normal meal or snack
  • Eating faster during binge episodes
  • Feeling that eating behavior is out of control
  • Frequently eating alone

Causes for Eating Disorders

While there is no known cause for eating disorders, possible causes include the following:[6,7]

Biology. People with immediate family members who have an eating disorder may be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Additionally, there’s some evidence that the brain chemical serotonin influences eating behaviors.

Psychological and emotional health. People with eating disorders may have low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behavior, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, as well as a history of being teased or ridiculed based on size or weight, a history of physical or sexual abuse and troubled relationships.

Culture and Societal Pressures. The Western cultural environment often cultivates and reinforces a desire for thinness and often has a narrow definition of beauty, including only women and men of specific body weights and shapes. This can affect stress related to racial, ethnic, size/weight-related or other forms of discrimination or prejudice. Additionally, peer pressure and what people see in the media may fuel this desire to be thin (which is often equated with success and worth), particularly among young girls.

Effects of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders cause a wide variety of complications, depending on the severity of the disorder. Complications may include death, heart problems, multiple organ failure, depression, suicidal thoughts or behavior, absence of menstruation, bone loss, stunted growth, digestive problems, kidney damage, severe tooth decay and high or low blood pressure.[8]

Treatments for Eating Disorders

Adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise and stopping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment. Treatment plans may include one or more of the following:

  • Individual, group and/or family psychotherapy
  • Medical care and monitoring
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Medication

Hospitalization is sometimes needed to treat problems caused by malnutrition or to ensure a person eats enough if they are very underweight.[3]


  1. The National Eating Disorders Association. Binge Eating Disorder. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  2. The National Eating Disorders Association. Get The Facts On Eating Disorders. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  4. The National Eating Disorders Association. Types & Symptoms of Eating Disorders. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  5. Mayo Clinic. Eating disorders Symptoms. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  6. Mayo Clinic. Eating disorders Causes. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  7. The National Eating Disorders Association. Factors That May Contribute to Eating Disorders. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from
  8. Mayo Clinic. Eating disorders Complications. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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