Table of Contents

Eating Disorders: Types, Causes & Symptoms

eating disorders

Clinically Reviewed by: Dr. Robin Campbell, LMFT, PHD

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have severe consequences for both physical and mental health. These disorders frequently involve abnormal eating behaviors and distorted body image, affecting people of all body weights. While some individuals may have a normal weight, others may become dangerously underweight or overweight. The most common eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, are often associated with frequent dieting, binge episodes, and an extreme fear of gaining weight. People with eating disorders may severely restrict food intake, eat unusually large amounts in a short period, or eat only certain foods, leading to serious health consequences like severe dehydration, brittle hair, and even yellowish skin growth. Medical complications can arise, impacting the neck and jaw area, internal body temperature, and overall body mass index (BMI). It is crucial for individuals to seek help from a health care provider or an eating disorder specialist to receive appropriate treatment and support from mental health services administration and other mental health professionals.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits that negatively impact a person’s physical and emotional health. These disorders involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight, food, and body image. Eating disorders can affect individuals of any age, gender, or background and often coexist with other psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Key Features of Eating Disorders:

  • Distorted Body Image: Individuals often have an unrealistic perception of their body size and shape, leading to an intense fear of gaining body weight.
  • Unhealthy Eating Behaviors: This can include restrictive dieting, binge eating, purging (through vomiting or use of laxatives), and excessive exercise.
  • Psychological Distress: Eating disorders are often accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety related to food and body image.
  • Physical Health Consequences: These can range from malnutrition and severe weight loss to electrolyte imbalances and organ damage.


Types of Eating Disorders

  1. Anorexia Nervosa
  • Characteristics: Extreme restriction of food intake, intense fear of gaining body weight, and a distorted body image.
  • Symptoms: Severe weight loss, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, hair thinning, absence of menstruation, and a preoccupation with food, dieting, and body size.
  1. Bulimia Nervosa
  • Characteristics: Episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, or the use of laxatives to lose weight.
  • Symptoms: Swollen salivary glands, sore throat, worn tooth enamel, acid reflux, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.
  1. Binge-Eating Disorder
  • Characteristics: Recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort, with a feeling of loss of control.
  • Symptoms: Eating even when not hungry, eating alone due to embarrassment, feelings of guilt or shame, and fluctuations in weight.
  1. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
  • Characteristics: Eating very little food or avoiding certain foods, leading to significant nutritional deficiency and weight loss or failure to achieve expected weight gain.
  • Symptoms: Dramatic weight loss, growth delays in children, gastrointestinal issues, and a lack of interest in food.
  1. Pica
  • Characteristics: Persistent eating of non-food substances such as dirt, clay, chalk, hair, or paper.
  • Symptoms: Potential for poisoning, gastrointestinal blockages, infections, and nutritional deficiencies.
  1. Rumination Disorder
  • Characteristics: Repeated regurgitation of food, which may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out.
  • Symptoms: Malnutrition, weight loss, bad breath, tooth decay, and abdominal pain.
  1. Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)
  • Characteristics: Eating disorders that do not meet the criteria for the above disorders but still cause significant distress or impairment.
  • Examples: Atypical anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa of low frequency, and night eating syndrome.
  1. Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED)
  • Characteristics: Eating disorders that do not meet the criteria for any specific eating disorder category and lack sufficient information for a more specific diagnosis.
  1. Orthorexia Nervosa (Not officially recognized but widely discussed)
  • Characteristics: An obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy, leading to severe dietary restrictions and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Symptoms: Extreme concern with food quality and purity, avoidance of foods considered unhealthy, and significant impact on social and occupational functioning.


What are the Causes of Eating Disorders?

The causes of eating disorders are complex and multifactorial, involving a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Here are the primary contributors:

  1. Genetic Factors
  • Family History: Having a family member with an eating disorder increases the risk due to inherited genetic vulnerabilities.
  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes may predispose individuals to developing eating disorders, potentially influencing traits such as perfectionism, sensitivity, and impulsivity.
  1. Biological Factors
  • Brain Chemistry: Imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine can affect mood, appetite, and impulse control, contributing to eating disorders.
  • Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, particularly during puberty, can increase the risk of developing eating disorders.
  • Physical Health Conditions: Conditions such as gastrointestinal issues or chronic illnesses can contribute to abnormal eating behaviors.
  1. Psychological Factors
  • Low Self-Esteem: Negative self-image and low self-worth are common among individuals with eating disorders.
  • Perfectionism: A tendency toward perfectionism can drive extreme behaviors aimed at achieving an ideal body image.
  • Emotional Distress: Anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders often coexist with eating disorders, sometimes as a coping mechanism for managing distressing emotions.
  • Trauma and Abuse: Experiences of trauma, abuse, or significant life stress can trigger or exacerbate eating disorders.
  1. Sociocultural Factors
  • Cultural Pressures: Societal standards and media portrayal of ideal body types can lead to body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating behaviors.
  • Peer Influence: Social circles and peer pressure, especially during adolescence, can contribute to the development of eating disorders.
  • Diet Culture: The prevalence of diet culture and the glorification of thinness can promote disordered eating habits.
  1. Environmental Factors
  • Family Dynamics: Dysfunctional family interactions, including overemphasis on weight and appearance, can contribute to eating disorders.
  • Stressful Life Events: Significant changes or stressful events, such as starting a new school, a breakup, or loss of a loved one, can trigger eating disorders.
  1. Personality Traits
  • Impulsivity: Impulsive behaviors and difficulty managing emotions can increase the risk of bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
  • Rigidity and Obsessionality: Traits such as being overly rigid and obsessive can contribute to anorexia nervosa.

Interaction of Factors

These factors often interact in complex ways. For example, a person with a genetic predisposition to an eating disorder may develop symptoms in response to environmental stressors or cultural pressures. Similarly, psychological vulnerabilities like low self-esteem may be exacerbated by societal ideals of beauty.


Who is at Risk from Eating Disorders?

  1. Adolescents and Young Adults: High risk due to developmental changes and societal pressures.
  2. Women: Higher prevalence, but men are increasingly affected.
  3. Individuals with a Family History: Genetic predisposition if relatives have eating disorders.
  4. People with Mental Health Issues: Conditions like anxiety, depression, and OCD can increase risk.
  5. Those with Certain Personality Traits: Perfectionism, impulsivity, and low self-esteem are common traits.
  6. Athletes and Performers: Pressure to maintain specific body types or weights.
  7. Individuals Experiencing Trauma or Stress: Life events such as abuse or significant stress can trigger disorders.
  8. Individuals in Diet-Focused Cultures: Societal emphasis on thinness and diet culture can contribute to risk.


What are the Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Physical: Significant weight loss, fatigue, hair thinning, amenorrhea.
  • Behavioral: Severe food restriction, preoccupation with dieting, excessive exercise.

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Physical: Fluctuating weight, swollen salivary glands, sore throat, tooth erosion.
  • Behavioral: Binge eating followed by purging, excessive exercise, secrecy around eating.

Binge-Eating Disorder

  • Physical: Weight gain, obesity-related health issues.
  • Behavioral: Eating large quantities quickly, eating when not hungry, feelings of guilt after eating. Individuals may also engage in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight after binge episodes.

ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)

  • Physical: Significant weight loss, nutritional deficiencies.
  • Behavioral: Avoidance of certain foods, limited variety of foods eaten.


  • Physical: Potential poisoning, gastrointestinal issues.
  • Behavioral: Eating non-food substances (e.g., dirt, chalk).

Rumination Disorder

  • Physical: Weight loss, malnutrition, dental problems.
  • Behavioral: Repeated regurgitation of food, re-chewing or spitting out.

General Warning Signs

  • Psychological: Preoccupation with weight, body image, extreme mood swings.
  • Behavioral: Ritualistic eating habits, frequent dieting or fasting, social withdrawal.


Side Effects and Risks of Eating Disorders

Short-Term Effects

  • Physical:
      • Malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies
      • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
      • Fatigue and weakness
      • Gastrointestinal issues (e.g., constipation, bloating)
      • Dizziness or fainting
      • Irregular or absent menstruation
  • Psychological:
    • Anxiety and depression
    • Obsessive thoughts about food and weight
    • Social withdrawal and isolation

Long-Term Effects

  • Physical:
      • Severe weight loss or obesity
      • Heart problems (e.g., arrhythmias, heart failure)
      • Bone density loss leading to osteoporosis
      • Dental erosion and gum disease
      • Chronic gastrointestinal issues
      • Organ damage (e.g., liver, kidneys)
  • Psychological:
    • Chronic mental health conditions (e.g., severe anxiety, depression)
    • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors
    • Persistent body image issues
    • Long-term impact on social and occupational functioning

Early intervention and treatment are crucial to mitigate these risks and promote recovery.


Prevalence of Eating Disorders

  • Global Estimates: Approximately 9% of the global population will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime.
  • Anorexia Nervosa:
      • Women: Affects about 0.9% at some point in their lives.
      • Men: Affects about 0.3%.
  • Bulimia Nervosa:
      • Women: Affects about 1.5%.
      • Men: Affects about 0.5%.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder:
      • Women: Affects about 3.5%.
      • Men: Affects about 2%.
  • ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder):
    • Prevalence: Estimates vary, more common in younger children and adolescents.
  • Gender Differences: Eating disorders are more prevalent in women, but incidence in men is increasing.
  • Age of Onset: Typically during adolescence and young adulthood, but can occur at any age.
  • Geographic Variation: Higher prevalence in Western countries due to cultural factors, with a rising trend globally.


How are Eating Disorders Diagnosed?

  • Medical History and Physical Exam:
      • Detailed discussion of eating habits, weight history, and symptoms.
      • Physical examination to assess health status and identify any complications.
  • Psychological Evaluation:
      • Interviews and questionnaires to assess thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to food, eating, and body image.
  • Diagnostic Criteria:
      • Use of criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose specific eating disorders.
  • Laboratory Tests:
      • Blood tests to check for nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, and organ function.
  • Additional Assessments:
    • May include bone density tests, electrocardiograms (EKG), and other tests to evaluate the physical impact of the disorder.


Are Eating Disorders Hereditary?

Yes, eating disorders have a hereditary component. Research indicates that genetics can play a significant role in the development of eating disorders. Individuals with a family history of eating disorders are at a higher risk. Genetic predispositions can influence traits such as:

  • Perfectionism
  • Impulsivity
  • Anxiety


However, genetics is just one factor, and environmental, psychological, and sociocultural factors also significantly contribute to the development of eating disorders.


Can Eating Disorders Be Prevented?

While not all eating disorders can be prevented, certain strategies can reduce the risk:

  1. Promote Healthy Body Image: Encourage acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes.
  2. Educate on Nutrition: Provide accurate information about healthy eating habits.
  3. Reduce Societal Pressures: Challenge media and cultural ideals of thinness and beauty.
  4. Encourage Open Communication: Foster environments where individuals feel comfortable discussing body image and food concerns.
  5. Early Intervention: Address disordered eating behaviors and emotional issues early on.
  6. Supportive Environment: Create a supportive home, school, and social environment that discourages dieting and body shaming.


Implementing these strategies can help reduce the risk and early onset of eating disorders.


Are Eating Disorders Curable?

Yes, eating disorders are treatable, and many individuals recover fully with the right treatment and support. However, the process can be long and complex, often requiring a combination of therapies:

Psychological Therapy:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Family-based therapy (FBT)
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT)


Nutritional Counseling:

  • Guidance on healthy eating habits
  • Meal planning


Medical Treatment:

  • Addressing physical health complications
  • Monitoring vital signs and nutritional status


Support Groups:

  • Peer support and sharing experiences
  • Community resources


Recovery is a highly individual process and can take time. Early intervention and comprehensive, ongoing support significantly improve outcomes.

How Do You Help a Loved One with Eating Disorders?

  1. Educate Yourself: Learn about eating disorders to understand what your loved one is experiencing.
  2. Encourage Professional Help: Suggest seeking help from a doctor, therapist, or nutritionist specialized in eating disorders.
  3. Offer Support: Be there to listen without judgment, offer encouragement, and express your concern and care.
  4. Avoid Comments on Appearance: Focus on health and feelings rather than weight or looks.
  5. Be Patient: Recovery takes time; offer ongoing support and understanding.
  6. Promote a Healthy Environment: Encourage balanced meals and positive body image in a non-confrontational way.
  7. Practice Self-Care: Ensure you also seek support and take care of your own emotional health.

Your support can make a significant difference in their recovery journey.

Treatment Options

Psychological Therapy:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Focuses on changing unhealthy eating behaviors and thoughts.
  • Family-Based Therapy (FBT): Involves family members in the treatment process, especially effective for adolescents.
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT): Addresses relationship issues that may contribute to the eating disorder.

Nutritional Counseling:

  • Dietitian Guidance: Develops a balanced meal plan to restore and maintain healthy eating habits.
  • Nutritional Education: Teaches the importance of nutrition and healthy food choices.

Medical Treatment:

  • Monitoring Health: Regular check-ups to manage physical health and complications.
  • Medications: Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to address co-occurring mental health conditions.

Support Groups:

  • Peer Support: Groups where individuals share experiences and support each other.
  • Community Resources: Access to local organizations that provide additional support.

Hospitalization or Residential Treatment:

  • Inpatient Care: For severe cases requiring intensive monitoring and treatment.
  • Residential Programs: Long-term care in a structured environment.

Complementary Therapies:

  • Art and Music Therapy: Helps express emotions and reduce stress.
  • Yoga and Mindfulness: Promotes relaxation and a positive connection with the body.

Education and Prevention:

  • Awareness Programs: Educating communities about eating disorders and promoting healthy body image.
  • School-Based Programs: Early intervention and education for children and adolescents.

Comprehensive Approach

Eating disorders treated through a combination of psychological therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical treatment can lead to recovery. A combination of these treatment options, tailored to the individual’s needs, is often most effective. Early intervention and a supportive network greatly enhance the chances of recovery.

Common Medications for Eating Disorders

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Usage: Commonly used for bulimia nervosa.
  • Dosage: Typically 60 mg per day.
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Usage: Sometimes used for binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa.
  • Dosage: Typically 50-200 mg per day.
  • Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
  • Usage: May be used for anorexia nervosa to help with weight gain and reduce obsessive thoughts.
  • Dosage: Typically 2.5-10 mg per day.
  • Topiramate (Topamax)
  • Usage: Sometimes used for binge-eating disorder.
  • Dosage: Typically 25-400 mg per day, often starting at a lower dose and gradually increasing.
  • Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
  • Usage: Approved for binge-eating disorder.
  • Dosage: Typically 30-70 mg per day.


  • Dosages can vary based on individual needs and response to the medication.
  • Always consult a healthcare professional before starting any medication.
  • Medications are often most effective when combined with therapy and other treatments.


Does Insurance Cover Eating Disorder Treatment?

Yes, many insurance plans cover eating disorder treatment, including:

  1. Inpatient and Outpatient Services: Hospital stays, residential programs, and outpatient therapy.
  2. Medical Treatment: Doctor visits, lab tests, and medications.
  3. Psychological Therapy: Sessions with therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists.
  4. Nutritional Counseling: Consultations with dietitians.

Coverage details can vary, so it’s important to:

  • Check Your Policy: Review your insurance plan’s benefits and coverage for eating disorder treatment.
  • Pre-Authorization: Obtain necessary pre-approvals for certain services.
  • In-Network Providers: Use healthcare providers within your insurance network to minimize out-of-pocket costs.

Common Insurance Plans for Mental Health Treatment

Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance

  • Covers therapy, medication, inpatient, and outpatient treatment.



  • Part B covers outpatient mental health; Part A covers inpatient psychiatric care.



  • Varies by state; generally includes a wide range of mental health services.


Affordable Care Act (ACA) Plans

  • Marketplace plans cover therapy, medication, and inpatient services.


Private Insurance Plans

  • Varies by insurer and plan; typically includes a range of mental health services.



  • For military personnel and families; covers therapy, inpatient care, and substance use treatment.


Student Health Insurance Plans

  • Offered by colleges and universities; includes counseling and psychiatric care.


  • Verify Coverage: Check plan details for mental health services.
  • In-Network Providers: Use to minimize costs.
  • Pre-Authorization: Obtain for certain services.
  • Out-of-Pocket Costs: Be aware of copayments, deductibles, and coinsurance.


Consult your insurance provider for specific coverage information.


Eating disorders affect millions of people worldwide, and their impact on physical and mental health can be profound. Despite the severe consequences, eating disorders can be treated effectively with the right support and treatment plans. People with eating disorders, whether they are underweight, overweight, or at a normal weight, can benefit from comprehensive care that addresses both the psychological and medical aspects of their condition. It is essential to recognize the signs of common eating disorders, such as frequent dieting, binge episodes, and the avoidance of certain foods, and to seek help promptly. Early intervention by an eating disorder specialist or a health care provider can help individuals regain a healthy weight, improve their body image, and prevent serious medical complications. Understanding that eating disorders are serious mental health conditions and not just issues of picky eating or weight management is crucial. By promoting awareness and providing access to mental health services and supportive care, we can help individuals recover from eating disorders and lead healthier, happier lives.

Seeking Treatment? We Can Help!

At New Hope Healthcare, as an in-network provider we work with most insurance plans, such as:

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges or substance abuse, reach out to New Hope Healthcare today. Our team of compassionate professionals is here to support your journey towards lasting well-being. Give us a call at 866-799-0806

eating disorders

Frequently Asked Questions

The most common types include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Symptoms vary but may include extreme weight changes, preoccupation with food and weight, restrictive eating, binge eating, purging behaviors, and physical health issues like fatigue and dizziness.
Yes, with proper treatment, many individuals recover fully. Treatment often involves psychological therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical monitoring.
Diagnosis involves a combination of medical history, physical exams, psychological evaluations, and meeting criteria from the DSM-5.
While not all cases can be prevented, promoting healthy body image, educating about nutrition, reducing societal pressures, and encouraging open communication can help reduce the risk.

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