Key Takeaways

  • Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are serious health conditions that affect people’s eating behaviors and attitudes toward food. 
  • Symptoms vary based on the specific eating disorder, but there may be several signs of a potential problem: significant weight change; avoiding eating around other people; and emotional distress about food, weight, and body image.
  • Eating disorders are different from disordered eating, which refers to irregular eating patterns and food behaviors that don’t meet the criteria for a specific eating disorder. 

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are serious mental health conditions that cause abnormal eating habits and an unhealthy relationship with food. Eating disorders impact people of all ages, genders, and races and are responsible for some of the highest mortality rates of all mental health conditions, resulting in one death every 52 minutes.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, know that you’re not alone and help is available. Nearly 29 million Americans are affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Recovery is possible with access to therapy, nutritional counseling, and a strong support system.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious health conditions defined by severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors and attitude toward food. If someone has an eating disorder, it may mean they have an unhealthy relationship with food, their weight, or their appearance. Each eating disorder has its own unique symptoms, but they can all lead to serious emotional and physical problems. These problems include anxiety, depression, malnutrition, and organ failure.

Treating an eating disorder is a complex process, but recognizing the signs and symptoms is an important step in connecting people with the care they need. With access to timely resources and support, people can learn to cope with emotional pain, manage co-occurring mental health symptoms, and maintain a healthy body weight and body image. 

Disordered eating vs. eating disorder

Disordered eating refers to a range of irregular eating patterns and food behaviors that cause distress but don’t meet the criteria for a specific eating disorder. Examples of disordered eating include skipping meals, fasting, restrictive dieting, binge eating, and purging. Although disordered eating isn’t considered an official mental health diagnosis, it can still cause health concerns like headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, and low self-esteem. 

The primary differences between disordered eating and eating disorders are the severity of the behaviors and how often they occur. It’s also worth noting that some people may experience disordered eating long before they have an official eating disorder. 

What are the different types of eating disorders?

Most eating disorders involve irregular eating behaviors and impaired mental functioning. But the exact thoughts, patterns, and consequences depend on the specific disorder. Here are six of the most common eating disorders.

  1. Anorexia nervosa: Anorexia is an eating disorder that involves extremely restricted food intake. People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They may severely limit food, eat small quantities of only certain foods, or avoid food altogether to keep their weight as low as possible. Anorexia can affect people of all body types and has the highest death rate of any mental health condition.
  2. Bulimia nervosa: With bulimia, people consume large amounts of food in one sitting, followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain. Examples of these behaviors include throwing up, taking laxatives, and doing extreme exercise. Bulimia can range from mild to extreme, with mild cases involving one to three compensatory behaviors per week and extreme cases including as many as 14 per week. 
  3. Binge eating disorder (BED): BED, characterized by chronic and compulsive (out-of-control) overeating, is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. With BED, people consume large amounts of food in a short period of time, eating past the point of satisfaction or when they’re not even hungry. Unlike bulimia, people with BED don’t regularly engage in compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain.
  4. Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED): When someone has disordered eating behaviors that don’t meet the full criteria for a specific eating disorder, they may be diagnosed with OSFED. For example, you may binge eat, but your binges aren’t frequent enough to qualify as bulimia or binge eating disorder. Or maybe you engage in repetitive purging behaviors, like self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives.
  5. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): People with ARFID avoid certain foods or food groups due to anxiety about food and eating. But unlike some other eating disorders, the food avoidance isn’t about weight or body image. Instead, it’s due to fear of choking or vomiting, sensory sensitivities (like strong reactions to food smells and textures), or a disinterest in food. 
  6. Pica: Pica involves compulsively eating non-food items like dirt, soap, or hair that have no nutritional value. To be considered pica, the behavior should persist for at least one month and be inappropriate to a person’s developmental level.

Signs of an eating disorder

Eating disorder symptoms vary based on the specific condition, but there are several signs that someone is dealing with unhealthy eating behaviors. 

Physical signs of an eating disorder:

  • Medical complications due to poor nutrition and eating habits, like stomach problems or dental issues
  • Physical signs of malnutrition or dehydration, like thinning hair and dry skin with anorexia and swollen cheeks with bulimia 
  • A change in diet or eating habits, like severely restricting food intake or following an extreme diet
  • Significant fluctuations in weight

Behavioral and emotional signs of an eating disorder:

  • Comments about being overweight or unhappy with their body image
  • Mood swings, irritability, or emotional distress about food, weight, and body image
  • Avoiding eating around other people
  • Frequently visiting the bathroom immediately after meals
  • Having food rituals, like excessive chewing or avoiding certain food groups

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. For example, some research suggests that you’re more likely to develop an eating disorder if you have a family history of eating disorders. Having another mental health condition, being bullied for your weight, and having a history of frequent dieting are additional risk factors for eating disorders. 

Three ways to support someone who has an eating disorder

If you’re concerned that someone in your life has anorexia, bulimia, or another eating disorder, these three tips can help you navigate difficult conversations and support their recovery with empathy. 

1. Recognize the need for help

Eating disorders can be difficult to recognize, but knowing what to look for can make a big difference when it comes to connecting people with the necessary care to prioritize and protect their health. 

In addition to changes in weight or eating habits, be mindful of these psychological changes:

  • Extreme concern or preoccupation with body size and shape
  • Feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression after eating
  • Low self-esteem or negative body image 

2. Gently approach them about their eating disorder

If you’re worried that a loved one has an unhealthy relationship with food, take this as a sign to reach out. Here are a few tips for approaching someone who shows signs of an eating disorder:

  • Timing is everything, so choose an appropriate time and location to have the conversation.
  • Communicate your concerns clearly without criticizing or judging the other person. Instead, focus on showing patience and empathy.
  • Make the conversation a safe space so they feel comfortable responding with their thoughts, feelings, and struggles. 

3. Support their recovery and encourage professional help

Overcoming an eating disorder is a gradual process, so find ways to be supportive throughout the healing journey. For many people, this starts with encouraging your loved one to seek professional help. Treatment depends on the particular disorder but usually involves a combination of therapy, nutritional counseling, and medication to manage co-occurring mental health conditions. 

Social support is also essential to a successful recovery, so remember to show your loved one that you care. This includes sharing helpful information and resources, inviting them to do things you usually enjoy together, or simply sending thoughtful texts like “How are you doing today?” or “I love you and I’m here if you’d like to talk.”

Find the right therapist for you with Rula

Recovering from an eating disorder is possible with access to the right resources and support, starting with a qualified mental health professional. 

At Rula, we connect you with a therapist who accepts your insurance so you can get the support you need. With Rula’s easy-to-use therapist-matching program, you can find the right provider for your needs in less than 30 seconds and begin treatment as early as this week. And if medication management is part of your treatment plan, we can connect you with a psychiatrist to find the right solution for you. 

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