What Are Some Of The Eating Disorder Symptoms?

Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW

Published 06/27/2022

There are four main types of eating disorders, and they are common worldwide. Over 30% of Americans have suffered from an eating disorder. That is about 9% of the population. And up to 74% of those people are found to have genetic heritability. Women are more than twice as likely as men to have an eating disorder too. However, anyone can develop an eating disorder, so it is important to look out for any of the symptoms below.

The Four Most Common Eating Disorders

What are eating disorders? An eating disorder is any kind of illness that causes irregular eating habits and concern about your weight or shape. These are mental health disorders that can effectively be treated. Four common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa. We will break them down to understand each of them better.

Anorexia Nervosa

Also known as anorexia, this life-threatening disorder is described as excessive weight loss and self-starvation. Those with anorexia nervosa typically weigh 15% less than their normal body weight should be. Although anorexia means “having no appetite,” those with anorexia nervosa are usually hungry but restrict the amount of food they will eat.

They see themselves as fat no matter how thin they are. In fact, when someone suffering from anorexia nervosa looks in the mirror, they see themselves as overweight even when they are clinically underweight. Even when their clothes are falling off them, they believe they are always too large, and they punish themselves by withholding food.

Anorexia nervosa is more common in females and has a higher incidence in athletes, dancers, and models. They tend to be very active in school and are known as perfectionists to those who know them well. Some of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Being extremely underweight is normal for them
  • They may be obsessed with weight gain and loss
  • Low self-esteem is common
  • They prefer to eat alone or pick at their food instead of eating
  • Chronic fatigue no matter how much they sleep
  • Their hair may be getting thinner
  • Periods may become less frequent
  • They can have heart palpitations or rapid heart rate
  • Swelling of the legs and arms is common
  • They may be dehydrated
  • Low blood pressure is often found
  • They are always cold
  • Often dress in layers to hide their weight loss

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Also known as ARFID or a selective eating disorder, some parents would call the picky eater disorder. Except their child does not outgrow it like most children do. They continue to only eat certain foods. This may be a few favorites that have turned into an obsession because they fear they will get sick or die if they eat anything else.Unlike those with anorexia, who avoid many foods because of an excessive and obsessive fear of body fat and weight gain, those with ARFID avoid many foods because they fear choking or vomiting or they are disturbed by qualities such as the textures, smells or colors of certain foods. Children and adults with ARFID don’t worry about their body size or shape.

Someone with ARFID typically has a very small selection of particular foods they will eat, including the food’s name brand. For example, one child may only eat McDonald’s McNuggets, Chips Ahoy cookies, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza. Trying to stop your child from being picky by withholding food does not work. They would actually rather starve than eat anything else.

Those with ARFID are not easy to spot, and they are usually discovered through speaking with your pediatrician. The doctor may notice that your child is not growing as they should, their vitamin levels may be low, and they may be underweight. It is more often seen in those on the autism spectrum. Some common signs of ARFID to look for include:

  • They may avoid certain foods or only eat a few different specific foods
  • They have significant weight loss
  • There is a marked lack of interest in eating
  • Depression is common
  • They may say that certain foods make them choke or vomit
  • They may dress in layers to hide their weight loss
  • Constant upset stomach or other intestinal issues are common
  • May have dizziness or fainting
  • Their skin may be dry
  • Wounds take longer to heal
  • They may have constipation and abdominal pain
  • Their hair may be getting thinner

Binge Eating Disorder

The most common eating disorder in the United States is binge eating disorder, also known as BED. This dangerous illness is characterized as an eating disorder that causes a person to eat unusually large amounts of food at one time with a feeling of losing control after they binge eat. It does not include those who eat a lot and then vomit or use laxatives to compensate; this is bulimia nervosa, discussed below.

Most of those who have binge eating disorder are clinically obese or overweight due to the number of calories they consume in one sitting. In fact, it is not uncommon for someone with BED to consume up to 5,000 calories at a time. It is not just overeating once in a while. Those with binge eating disorder typically consume large amounts of food daily or several times a week. Those with BED often cope with hard times or distress by eating, it is often not just a desire for food but correlated with other anxious feelings or stressful thoughts.

Oftentimes with binge eating disorders, the food consumed is not healthy because this type of food is made with things that may make you want more, encouraging the binge eating cycle. Some of the most common signs of BED include:

  • Forcing yourself to eat a bunch of food even when you are full
  • You may hoard or hide food.
  • Feelings of depression or hopelessness are common
  • You often feel disgusted or ashamed after a binge eating episode
  • You always eat your food quickly
  • Not eating with others or hiding from loved ones while eating
  • Eating all day without a specific mealtime is common
  • You know that your eating is out of control, but you cannot stop it

Bulimia Nervosa

Like binge eating disorder, those with bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, eat large amounts of food at one time but will make themselves vomit, use laxatives, exercise a lot, or go on extreme diets to make up for it. Experts believe that those with bulimia nervosa are overly concerned about their weight and always seem to be on a diet.

This illness is also found to be hereditary, like anorexia nervosa. If you have someone in your family with an eating disorder, you should watch your eating habits to make sure you do not develop unhealthy eating patterns. Social factors can also play a part in young women being more commonly affected.

According to Merck Manual, bulimia nervosa affects one in every 100 young adults and adolescents. But it is more common in girls than in boys. Body image and eating disorders seem to go together. Some of the signs of bulimia nervosa may include:

  • Making yourself vomit after eating is common
  • You may be taking laxatives and diuretics to lose weight
  • Your weight will go up and down rapidly
  • Dieting and/or fasting has become an obsession
  • You are exercising rigorously
  • Feeling out of control after binge eating
  • You may have extreme concerns about your weight
  • Swollen glands in the cheeks may be visible or palpable
  • You may get scars on your knuckles from using your fingers to make yourself throw up
  • Your teeth may be getting brittle due to the acid from throwing up
  • You will have low levels of potassium

Treatments For Eating Disorders

If you or your loved one has an eating disorder, you need to see a doctor as well as a therapist because any of these illnesses can be life-threatening. They can cause heart problems, diabetes, serious electrolyte imbalances, high blood pressure, and gallbladder disease.

You or your loved one can take a test online to determine if you may have an eating disorder if you have noticed the symptoms. It always helps to talk to a professional though. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is what often is prescribed for eating disorders. Some of these include cognitive behavioral therapy, family-based therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Also known as CBT, this is often used in eating disorder treatment. The therapist will help you or your loved one to improve and monitor moods and eating habits. They can also teach problem-solving skills and teach healthier ways to deal with stressful situations.

CBT includes teaching cognitive distortions that may affect you or your loved one’s eating habits. These include filtering, black and white thinking, control fallacies, should haves, and emotional reasoning. The therapist can help you or your loved one learn to recognize and cope with these distortions.

  • Family-Based Therapy: This type of talk therapy involves the whole family and works well when a child or adolescent is suffering with an eating disorder. Including the family in the therapy gives your loved one a sense of support as the family can help them follow healthy eating patterns.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy: With this kind of psychotherapy, the therapist helps you or your loved one figure out what is causing your unhealthy eating by exploring your habits and thoughts. Some of the individual dialectical behavior therapy includes group support meetings, individual therapy, and phone coaching.

Try Online Therapy

If you or your loved one is having trouble finding someone to talk to about it, there are thousands of counselors and therapists online who are licensed and trained in eating disorder therapy. You will not need an appointment, and you don’t have to leave your house to contact your therapist.