Common Types of Eating Disorders (and Their Symptoms)

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There are many types of eating disorders. Some common ones include anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulemia nervosa, and pica. While each type involves an extreme focus on food, their symptoms vary.
Although the term “eating” is in the name, eating disorders are about more than food. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course.

These disorders are described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition .

In the United States alone, an estimated 28 million Americans have or have had an eating disorder at some point in their life .

This article describes six of the most common types of eating disorders and their symptoms.

What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop. They might start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape .

In severe cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and may even result in death if left untreated. In fact, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second to opioid overdose .

People with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms include severe restriction of food, food binges, and purging behaviors like vomiting or overexercising.

Although eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, they’re increasingly common in men and gender nonconforming people. These populations often seek treatment at lower rates or may not report their eating disorder symptoms at all .

What are the signs of an eating disorder?
Different types of eating disorders have different symptoms, but each condition involves an extreme focus on issues related to food and eating, and some involve an extreme focus on weight.

This preoccupation with food and weight may make it hard to focus on other aspects of life.

Mental and behavioral signs may include:

dramatic weight loss
concern about eating in public
preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, or dieting
complaints of constipation, cold intolerance, abdominal pain, lethargy, or excess energy
excuses to avoid mealtime
intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
dressing in layers to hide weight loss or stay warm
severely limiting and restricting the amount and types of food consumed
refusing to eat certain foods
denying feeling hungry
expressing a need to “burn off” calories
repeatedly weighing oneself

patterns of binge eating and purging
developing rituals around food
excessively exercising
cooking meals for others without eating
missing menstrual periods (in people who would typically menstruate)
Physical signs may include :

stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal symptoms
difficulty concentrating
atypical lab test results (anemia, low thyroid levels, low hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate)
dizziness
fainting
feeling cold all the time
sleep irregularities

menstrual irregularities
calluses across the tops of the finger joints (a sign of inducing vomiting)
dry skin
dry, thin nails
thinning hair
muscle weakness
poor wound healing
poor immune system function

What causes eating disorders?
Experts believe that a variety of factors may contribute to eating disorders.

One of these is genetics. People who have a sibling or parent with an eating disorder seem to be at an increased risk of developing one .

Personality traits are another factor. In particular, neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are three personality traits often linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, according to a 2015 research review .

Other potential causes include perceived pressures to be thin, cultural preferences for thinness, and exposure to media promoting these ideals .

More recently, experts have proposed that differences in brain structure and biology may also play a role in the development of eating disorders. In particular, levels of the brain messaging chemicals serotonin and dopamine may be factors .

However, more studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Types of eating disorders
Eating disorders are a group of related conditions involving extreme food and weight issues, but each disorder has unique symptoms and diagnosis criteria. Here are six of the most common eating disorders and their symptoms.

1. Anorexia nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is likely the most well-known eating disorder.

It generally develops during adolescence or young adulthood and tends to affect more women than men.

People with anorexia generally view themselves as overweight, even if they’re dangerously underweight. They tend to constantly monitor their weight, avoid eating certain types of foods, and severely restrict their calorie intake.

Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include :

very restricted eating patterns
intense fear of gaining weight or persistent behaviors to avoid gaining weight, despite being underweight
a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight
a heavy influence of body weight or perceived body shape on self-esteem
a distorted body image, including denial of being seriously underweight

However, it’s important to note that weight should not be the major focus of diagnosing someone with anorexia.

Using body mass index as a factor in diagnosis is outdated because people who are categorized as “normal” or “overweight” can have the same risks.

In atypical anorexia, for example, a person may meet the criteria for anorexia but not be underweight despite significant weight loss .

Obsessive-compulsive symptoms are also often present. For instance, many people with anorexia are preoccupied with constant thoughts about food, and some may obsessively collect recipes or hoard food.

They may also have difficulty eating in public and exhibit a strong desire to control their environment, limiting their ability to be spontaneous .

Anorexia is officially categorized into two subtypes — the restricting type and the binge eating and purging type .

Individuals with the restricting type lose weight solely through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise.

Individuals with the binge eating and purging type may binge on large amounts of food or eat very little. In both cases, after they eat, they purge using activities such as vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, or exercising excessively.

Anorexia can be very damaging to the body. Over time, individuals living with it may experience thinning of their bones, infertility, and brittle hair and nails.

In severe cases, anorexia can result in heart, brain, or multi-organ failure and death.

2. Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is another well-known eating disorder.

Like anorexia, bulimia tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood and appears to be less common among men than women .

People with bulimia frequently eat unusually large amounts of food in a specific period of time.

Each binge eating episode usually continues until the person becomes painfully full. During a binge, the person usually feels that they cannot stop eating or control how much they are eating.

Binges can happen with any type of food but most commonly occur with foods the individual would usually avoid.

Individuals with bulimia then attempt to purge to compensate for the calories consumed and to relieve gut discomfort.

Common purging behaviors include forced vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and excessive exercise.

Symptoms may appear very similar to those of the binge eating or purging subtypes of anorexia nervosa. However, individuals with bulimia usually maintain a relatively typical weight rather than losing a large amount of weight.

Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include :

recurrent episodes of binge eating with a feeling of lack of control
recurrent episodes of inappropriate purging behaviors to prevent weight gain
self-esteem overly influenced by body shape and weight
a fear of gaining weight, despite having a typical weight
Side effects of bulimia may include an inflamed and sore throat, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, acid reflux, irritation of the gut, severe dehydration, and hormonal disturbances.

In severe cases, bulimia can also create an imbalance in levels of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. This can cause a stroke or heart attack.

3. Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder is the most prevalent form of eating disorder and one of the most common chronic illnesses among adolescents.

It typically begins during adolescence and early adulthood, although it can develop later on.

Individuals with this disorder have symptoms similar to those of bulimia or the binge eating subtype of anorexia.

For instance, they typically eat unusually large amounts of food in relatively short periods of time and feel a lack of control during binges.

People with binge eating disorder do not restrict calories or use purging behaviors, such as vomiting or excessive exercise, to compensate for their binges .

Common symptoms of binge eating disorder include :

eating large amounts of food rapidly, in secret, and until uncomfortably full, despite not feeling hungry
feeling a lack of control during episodes of binge eating
feelings of distress, such as shame, disgust, or guilt, when thinking about the binge eating behavior
no use of purging behaviors, such as calorie restriction, vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative or diuretic use, to compensate for the binge eating
People with binge eating disorder often consume an excessive amount of food and may not make nutritious food choices. This may increase their risk of medical complications such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes .

 

 

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