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Eating disorders are serious conditions characterized by eating behaviors that some may consider unhealthy. They can have serious repercussions on a person’s physical and emotional health.People with eating disorders may be overly concerned about their weight or body shape. For this reason, they may skip meals, induce vomiting, overuse laxatives, or show other similar behaviors. Research suggests that approximately 1 in 20 people in the United States have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

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

What is an eating disorder?

Marc Tran/Stocksy United

An eating disorder is a serious condition linked to severe disturbances in eating behaviors. People with these conditions are usually preoccupied with food, body weight, or body shape. For this reason, they may avoid eating, induce vomiting, abusing laxatives, or exhibiting 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 United States, almost 29 million people will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Eating disorders usually occur in adolescents and young adults. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, a 2007 study determined that the median age range of onset was 18–21 years old.

The same study reported a gender imbalance in the prevalence of eating disorders, with eating disorders being less common in men than in women.

What causes an eating disorder?

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

Other studies indicate that genes and heritability may also contribute.

Other possible causal factors may include:

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

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 eating, exercise excessively, induce vomiting, or use laxatives to get rid of food.

Anorexia nervosa can lead to self-starvation and is one of the highest death rates of any mental health problem.

What are the types of anorexia?

There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa.

  • Restriction type: It involves a person eating very little food in order to lose weight. They may also avoid certain foods altogether.
  • Type of binge or purge: It involves a person eating a large amount of food in a short time, causing vomiting, or both. They may also use laxatives or diuretics to remove food from the body.

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa can include:

Severe anorexia nervosa can cause:

  • muscular weakness
  • infertility
  • brittle hair and nails
  • bone thinning
  • heart or kidney failure
  • cerebral atrophy
  • seizures
  • death

Learn more about anorexia nervosa here.

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

People with the condition eat to the point of bowel discomfort and then purge to make up for the calories they have consumed.

Bulimia nervosa is different from the subtype of binge eating or purgative anorexia. Indeed, it includes both recurrent binge eating and compensatory behaviors, such as vomiting, misuse of laxatives, or excessive exercise.

There are no weight criteria for a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa. People with this condition may be overweight or moderately weighted.

Symptoms of bulimia nervosa

Symptoms of bulimia nervosa can include:

  • feeling the need to purge after eating to make up for the calories you’ve consumed
  • dizziness
  • a chronic sore throat due to repeated vomiting
  • heartburn and acid reflux due to repeated vomiting
  • tooth decay due to repeated vomiting
  • diarrhea

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

Learn more about bulimia nervosa here.

What is binge eating disorder?

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

Symptoms of binge eating disorder

Symptoms of binge eating disorder can include:

  • an urge to continue eating even when you are full
  • feelings of guilt after eating
  • a need to isolate oneself while eating

Bulimia attacks can cause:

Learn more about binge eating here.

What are other eating disorders?

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

  • Avoidant or Restrictive Eating Disorder: It involves a person severely limiting the amount and type of food they eat. It can lead to significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Spades: It involves a person eating non-food items, such as metal, paper, and chalk. This can have serious health consequences, such as intestinal blockages.
  • Rumination: This involves repeatedly regurgitating food after eating. It can cause bad breath, weight loss, and upset stomach. Rumination usually occurs in infants and people with intellectual disabilities.

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

Consult a doctor if you or a loved one has problems with foods that some may consider unhealthy.

How to treat an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are usually treatable. In fact, you can recover completely if you undergo therapy. The following are examples of such therapies:

  • Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy, this treatment involves talking with a mental health professional to help you identify and deal with triggers for unhealthy behaviors. It can also help you improve your eating habits.
  • Nutrition tips: This involves working with a dietitian or nutritionist to help you make healthy food choices. Therapy focuses on improving your eating habits and overall well-being.
  • Family therapy: This is a type of talk therapy in which the whole family is invited to join in the discussion. It is a must-have 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 give antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers to help people with eating disorders cope with emotional distress.

Certain lifestyle changes can speed up your recovery from an eating disorder. They understand:

  • abstain from tracking your weight
  • do moderate exercise
  • practice 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 evaluate your symptoms. They will also perform a physical exam to check for signs of a physical health condition.

If there are still uncertainties, your doctor may offer you a psychological self-assessment test. This involves answering a few 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.

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

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

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 talking therapies such as CBT and medications such as antidepressants.