What Are Eating Disorders? Causes, Types, & Treatment Methods

Published 11/09/2020

Eating disorders are a unique group of mental health conditions that severely impact an individual’s eating behaviors, and it can lead to severe and sometimes life-threatening consequences. This article will learn about the different types of eating disorders, why they happen, and how people can get help for them.

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Defining Eating Disorders

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an eating disorder can be defined as “illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” [1]

When people develop an eating disorder, they often have a tendency to be preoccupied with how their body looks and will develop dangerous eating habits such as binging, purging, and starvation.

There are many reasons why eating disorders can arise in people of all ages and backgrounds, and these will be discussed later on in this article. Eating disorders in children and adolescents are very common, especially in girls, due to their peers, media, and pop culture. However, contrary to popular belief, eating disorders in men are also quite common, even though women are more likely to develop one.

Eating disorders are an umbrella term for a small group of conditions, which means there are different types of them, and some of them you may have heard of the eating disorder’s names before.

All of them can cause serious harm throughout the body, and sometimes it can be fatal due to interfering with how a person receives their nutrition.

In the next section, you will learn about the various eating disorders currently recognized in the DSM-5 by the American Psychiatric Association and what makes them different from one another.

What Kinds Of Eating Disorders Are There?

There are three main eating disorders people can struggle with – binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. Below you will learn about their differences and the signs and symptoms of each of these eating disorders. [1] [2]

Binge Eating Disorder

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Binge eating disorder is the most recent inclusion in the DSM; however, it is the most common eating disorder that people struggle with despite being recognized relatively recently.

The primary characteristics of binge eating disorders are eating too much food and not controlling eating. Because of this, it’s the one eating disorder that is associated with obesity.

In addition to these main signs, many other symptoms can vary from person to person, such as:

  • Eating very quickly

  • Eating when full or not hungry.

  • Eating until being uncomfortably full

  • Having feelings of guilt, embarrassment, distress, or depression towards the eating behaviors

Because of the symptoms, it’s common for individuals to avoid eating with other people or hoard food to themselves so that others don’t witness their binging and other eating behaviors that they might display.

One thing that separates binge eating disorder from the others is that those who binge eat will not try to compensate for their overeating with other behaviors to counteract it. However, it is common for people who binge eat to diet frequently, often to no avail.

Bulimia Nervosa

The next common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, often referred to as bulimia, which shares some characteristics with binge eating disorder. Still, it also has others that define this dangerous condition.

People with bulimia do binge eat, but they will try to do things such as purge the food that they eat, either through forced vomiting or consuming laxatives and diuretics. They may also go on extreme diets or fast to restrict their eating and tend to exercise excessively.

This is known as the binge-purge cycle, and it’s to quickly get rid of or limit their calories, and this can cause several different health issues like

  • Dehydration

  • An inflamed and sore throat

  • A swollen jaw and salivary glands

  • Weakened tooth enamel (from stomach acids from vomiting)

  • Gastrointestinal issues

  • Kidney problems

In worst-case scenarios, these types of health concerns can become life-threatening; cardiac arrhythmia, gastrointestinal ruptures, or tears in the esophagus are just a few examples of some issues that can be fatal. [1]

Sometimes, bulimia signs aren’t always easy to detect, as many people who are bulimic aren’t always severely underweight. However, this is a sign of the next eating disorder, anorexia nervosa.

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Anorexia Nervosa

Despite binge eating being the most common eating disorder, when people think of eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, or just anorexia for short, is often the one that immediately comes to mind.

The defining feature of anorexia is very low body weight, and it’s formally diagnosed when an individual is 15 percent below the normal, healthy body-weight for their height. [1]

People who have anorexia refuse to eat food because of distorted beliefs about their body-image and are afraid to gain weight. Still, they may also exhibit some behaviors seen in bulimia, such as consuming laxatives and exercise excessively. [3]

Unlike bulimia, where people will binge eat, but try to counteract it, people with anorexia won’t get the calories they need at all, and this causes them to lose an unhealthy amount of weight and have symptoms such as:

  • Lethargy

  • Anemia

  • Muscular atrophy

  • Osteoporosis

  • Reduced breathing rate

  • Low blood pressure

  • Reduced body temperature

  • Constipation

  • Brittle hair and nails

  • Dry skin

  • Depression

Out of the three main eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is the most dangerous because it can lead to complete organ failure, including brain damage. It can certainly be fatal if brought to the point of starvation.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can affect individuals from any background and of all ages, but it’s most commonly seen during adolescence or early adulthood.

Like other mental health issues, many complex factors can contribute to the development of eating disorders, like genetic and biological ones; however, it’s undeniable that sociocultural and psychological factors are to blame for most cases.

Those who have low self-esteem because of their body-image or suffer from other emotional problems are more likely to develop or have a history of eating disorders. This can include limiting food or mean using food as a way to cope.

For example, those who have anorexia nervosa may fear becoming fat and will do what they can to prevent that. This results in becoming severely underweight, and many become in denial about their low body-weight.

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These ideas about the “ideal” body image are influenced by society and the culture that they live in, and unfortunately, this can have severe health consequences. This is why the eating disorder and the media are often affiliated, and girls and young women are most likely to be affected.

On the other hand, someone with binge-eating disorder will overeat and lack control over it, which can lead to becoming overweight and obese. Not all obese individuals have binge eating disorder, though, and therefore, the other signs of it must be assessed to determine if they have binge eating disorder.

Therefore, addressing these emotional issues will be crucial to helping people overcome eating disorders of all types.

Treating Eating Disorders

Addressing eating disorders requires treating the psychological issues that compel an individual to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors, and it also involves helping people get to a healthy body-weight.

This means that those with anorexia must learn about proper nutrition and regular patterns of eating; in binge eating disorder and bulimia, individuals will have to interrupt the cycles of binging and purging (or just binging in the case of BED).

Psychotherapy methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy can help people address the thoughts and feelings that lead to poor eating behaviors, which can also help improve their mood by identifying these negative and unhelpful thinking patterns and dealing with them.

Other techniques, such as the Maudsley Method, can also help in recovery by using others’ support. Family members will help establish healthier eating behaviors. Over time, the individual will regain control of their eating and make decisions for themselves, which allows them to focus on the other issues related to the eating disorder.

Medical treatment may also be necessary, as well. Prescription medication from a doctor or psychiatrist can help address some of the symptoms seen in eating disorders, especially ones related to depression.

In many cases, hospitalization may be necessary to restore a person’s health if the eating disorder goes untreated and becomes life-threatening.

Finding Out If You Have An Eating Disorder

Getting help with an eating disorder generally requires the proper diagnosis from a mental health professional; however, it’s still important to know what you’re potentially up against before making an appointment to speak to one.

Reading the signs and symptoms can certainly be helpful, but you can also take an assessment from home to find out if you might have an eating disorder.

This “do I have an eating disorder?” quiz is quick and free, and it may be able to give you or someone else the push they need to seek out help and improve their health.


While they are treatable, eating disorders are also preventable through education having an understanding of why they occur. Hopefully, this article has given you the information you need to get the help you need or give someone else a hand. Eating disorder recovery requires the support of many, and with the resources available, people can eat and live healthier.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Are Eating Disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (, 2020). Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml

  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018, February 22). Eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20353603