What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a condition in which a person cannot maintain a balanced and healthy relationship with food. Depending on the condition, they may not eat enough, eat too much, or overly manage the calories they take in or put out.

People with eating disorders may also try to “control” their food, overexercise, develop rituals surrounding mealtimes, or refuse to eat with others. These are just a few examples of the ways eating disorders can manifest.

The overarching image of an eating disorder is an obsession with weight and appearance above health. People with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders come to see themselves as physically unappealing in ways that do not reflect reality.

Types of eating disorders

Most eating disorders are mental health illnesses. There are 5 main types:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder
  • Pica
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder

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

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.

Bulimia nervosa

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.

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.

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

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)is a new name for an old disorder.

The term has replaced the term “feeding disorder of infancy and early childhood,” a diagnosis previously reserved for children under age 7. Individuals with this disorder experience disturbed eating due to either a lack of interest in eating or a distaste for certain smells, tastes, colors, textures, or temperatures.

Common symptoms of ARFID include

  • avoidance or restriction of food intake that prevents the person from eating enough calories or nutrients
  • eating habits that interfere with typical social functions, such as eating with others
  • weight loss or poor development for age and height
  • nutrient deficiencies or dependence on supplements or tube feeding

It’s important to note that ARFID goes beyond common behaviors such as picky eating in toddlers or lower food intake in older adults.

Moreover, it does not include the avoidance or restriction of foods due to lack of availability or religious or cultural practices.


Pica is an eating disorder that involves eating things that are not considered food and that do not provide nutritional value

Individuals with pica crave non-food substances such as ice, dirt, soil, chalk, soap, paper, hair, cloth, wool, pebbles, laundry detergent, or cornstarch.

Pica can occur in adults, children, and adolescents. It is most frequently seen in individuals with conditions that affect daily functioning, including intellectual disabilities, developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, and mental health conditions such as schizophrenia

Individuals with pica may be at an increased risk of poisoning, infections, gut injuries, and nutritional deficiencies. Depending on the substances ingested, pica may be fatal.

Other specified feeding or eating disorder

Such as:

  • Purging disorder. Individuals with purging disorder often use purging behaviors, such as vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercising, to control their weight or shape. However, they do not binge.
  • Night eating syndrome. Individuals with this syndrome frequently eat excessively at night, often after awakening from sleep. 
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). While it is not found in the DSM-5, this category includes any other conditions that have symptoms similar to those of an eating disorder but don’t fit any of the disorders above.

Eating disorder treatment

Eating disorder treatment plans are specifically tailored to each person and may include a combination of multiple therapies. Treatment will usually involve talk therapy, as well as regular health checks with a physician

It’s important to seek treatment early for eating disorders, as the risk of medical complications and suicide is high.

Treatment options include: 

  • Individual, group, or family psychotherapy.A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be recommended to help reduce or eliminate disordered behavior such as binge eating, purging, and restricting. CBT involves learning how to recognize and change distorted or unhelpful thought patterns.
  • Medications. A doctor may recommend treatment with medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers to help treat an eating disorder or other conditions that may occur at the same time, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Nutritional counseling. This involves working with a dietitian to learn proper nutrition and eating habits and may also involve restoring or managing a person’s weight if they have experienced significant weight changes. Studies suggest that combining nutritional therapy with cognitive therapy may significantly improve treatment outcomes.

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