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Understanding Eating Disorders

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: February 26, 2019

Reviewed: January 16, 2024

Person with an eating disorder standing on a scale near a body measuring tape.
PLCNSK/iStock/Getty Images Plus

According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 5% of the population suffers from an eating disorder and anyone can be affected. People of all sexes, genders, races, ethnicities, shapes and sizes can have an eating disorder.

All forms of eating disorders can be fatal, and it is critical for anyone with symptoms of an eating disorder to seek professional help. Early treatment gives the greatest chance for a full recovery.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are several types of eating disorders, but the following three are often better recognized: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

  • Binge eating disorder involves eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time. Individuals often feel a loss of control while binging, or eating without attention to hunger or fullness. Food is not purged afterward.
  • Individuals with bulimia nervosa may have similar experiences with binge eating, though it is often followed by purging. This might include vomiting, laxative use, fasting or exercising excessively.
  • Anorexia nervosa involves a severe restriction of calories. There may be a fear of weight gain, distorted body image and strict "rules" about eating.

A person with an eating disorder may display one symptom or many. Plus, a person's appearance may not always indicate how severe their eating disorder is.

Signs and Symptoms

Anorexia Nervosa — Someone with anorexia may show any of the following:

  • Food restriction and avoidance
  • A preoccupation with weight, exercise and/or calories
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Refusal to maintain a body weight that is healthy
  • Wearing baggy clothes or layers to hide body shape
  • Isolation and fear of eating with others
  • Food rituals and secretive eating patterns
  • Disposing of food in strange places
  • Keeping a "food diary" or lists of calories and exercise
  • Low self-esteem and need for approval from others
  • Perfectionist personality
  • Hair loss, sunken eyes, pale skin
  • Dizziness and headaches
  • Feeling cold
  • Low blood pressure and heart rate
  • Loss of menstrual cycle or irregular menstrual periods
  • Constipation, stomach pain
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Mood swings, depression, anxiety and/or fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping

Bulimia Nervosa — Signs of bulimia include many of those listed above, and also may include:

  • Binging and/or purging
  • Use of diet pills, laxatives and/or enemas
  • Bruised or callused knuckles, bloodshot eyes, light bruising under eyes
  • Sore throat and/or swollen glands
  • Trips to the bathroom following meals, sometimes using running water to hide the sound of vomiting

Binge Eating Disorder — In addition to the signs listed for anorexia and bulimia, compulsive overeating also may include:

  • Chronic dieting with or without weight loss
  • Eating in private
  • Eating very quickly
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Feeling depressed or ashamed about eating habits
  • High blood pressure and/or cholesterol
  • Weight gain

Risks of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders affect health in many ways and put nonstop strain on your body and brain. The lack of nutrition can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, hormone changes and electrolyte imbalances.

  • Anorexia Nervosa: The process of starvation can affect most organ systems. Physical dangers include constipation, low heart rate and blood pressure, abdominal pain, dry skin, fine body hair and lack of menstrual periods. Anorexia may cause anemia, bone loss, kidney problems and changes in brain function.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Vomiting and laxative abuse can lead to swollen glands, vitamin and mineral imbalance and wearing down of tooth enamel. There also can be long-lasting problems with digestion and the heart.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: This disorder brings an increased risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease, arthritis, bone loss and stroke.

For more information, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in eating disorders.

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