Eating Disorders: Common Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes - Dr. Axe

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Eating Disorders: Most Common Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes & More


Eating disorders - Dr. Axe

According to research published in the Lancet, eating disorders have been increasing over the past 50 years, and changes in our food environment have been implicated in these issues.

From emotional eating to orthorexia, when you become obsessed with eating only the “right foods,” eating disorders come in many forms and can impact anyone. In fact, recent research shows that eating disorders in men are on the rise, which calls into question previous notions that they mostly affect adolescents and women.

When it comes to treating an eating disorder, the first step is to know the signs and symptoms so it can be diagnosed before causing major health implications. Eating disorders can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening, but there are several ways to combat them and create healthy long-term habits.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a disruption in eating behavior, with excessive concern about body weight that impairs physical health and psychosocial functioning. It’s a complex and potentially life-threatening mental health condition that’s generally characterized by abnormal eating habits and attitudes toward food, weight and body image.

An eating disorder involves a range of emotional, psychological and physical disturbances that significantly impact an individual’s well-being.


Eating disorders can have severe physical and psychological consequences, including:

Eating disorders can affect individuals of any age, gender or background, although they are more commonly observed in young women. They are complex conditions that can be influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and sociocultural factors.

Early recognition, intervention and access to appropriate treatment are crucial for individuals struggling with these disorders.

Signs and Symptoms

Although eating disorders are often stereotyped as conditions that affect adolescents and young adults, they can occur at any age, according to recent studies. The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary depending on the specific type of disorder, but there are common indicators to be aware of.

It’s important to note that individuals struggling with an eating disorder may not exhibit all of these signs, and the presence of some symptoms doesn’t necessarily indicate an eating disorder. But if someone is experiencing several of these symptoms, it may be a cause for concern and warrant further evaluation by a health care professional.

Here are the 10 most common signs and symptoms associated with eating disorders:

  1. Significant weight fluctuations: Rapid and dramatic weight loss or weight gain can be indicative of an eating disorder, especially if accompanied by other symptoms.
  2. Distorted body image: A distorted perception of one’s body shape or size, often believing the person is overweight despite being underweight or at a healthy weight.
  3. Obsession with food, calories and diets: Constant preoccupation with food, strict calorie counting or following extreme diets.
  4. Restrictive eating patterns: Severely restricting food intake, avoiding certain food groups or adopting rigid eating rituals.
  5. Binge eating: Frequent episodes of consuming unusually large amounts of food within a short time, accompanied by a sense of loss of control.
  6. Purging behaviors: Engaging in self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas as a means to compensate for food intake.
  7. Social withdrawal and isolation: Avoiding social activities that involve food, becoming withdrawn from friends and family, or exhibiting changes in social behavior.
  8. Emotional and psychological changes: Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, or a preoccupation with body image and self-worth tied to weight and appearance.
  9. Physical changes and complications: Fatigue, dizziness, fainting, weakness, frequent gastrointestinal problems, irregular or absent menstrual periods (in females), dry skin, hair loss, and dental problems.
  10. Excessive exercise: Engaging in compulsive or excessive exercise routines, even when injured or exhausted.


The causes of eating disorders are complex and multifaceted, involving a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, environmental and sociocultural factors.

Several common factors that may contribute to the development of eating disorders include:

  1. Genetic and biological factors: There is evidence suggesting a genetic predisposition to eating disorders. Individuals with a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions may be at a higher risk. Certain biological factors, such as abnormalities in brain chemicals or neurotransmitters, may also contribute to the development of eating disorders.
  2. Psychological factors: Research shows that psychological factors play a significant role in the development of eating disorders. Low self-esteem, perfectionism, negative body image and distorted body image perception are often observed in individuals with eating disorders. Additionally, studies indicate that individuals with certain personality traits, such as impulsivity, obsessive-compulsive tendencies or anxiety, may be more vulnerable to developing eating disorders.
  3. Sociocultural factors: Societal pressures and cultural influences can contribute to the development of eating disorders, research suggests. Societal emphasis on thinness, idealized body standards portrayed in media, and societal norms that equate thinness with beauty and success can all contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors. Cultural factors, such as the prevalence of dieting or weight-focused behaviors, can also impact the development of eating disorders.
  4. Environmental factors: Environmental factors, such as childhood trauma, history of abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics, or a history of teasing or bullying can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Stressful life events, transitions or significant life changes may also trigger the onset of disordered eating behaviors.

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Individuals with this disorder often restrict their food intake to extreme levels, leading to significant weight loss and malnutrition. They may engage in excessive exercise and exhibit obsessive behaviors around food and body weight.

People with anorexia may deny the severity of their low body weight and may experience physical complications, such as osteoporosis, anemia, loss of muscle mass, fatigue, cognitive impairments, organ damage and hormonal imbalances.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the misuse of laxatives or diuretics. Individuals with bulimia often experience a sense of lack of control during binge episodes and may engage in secretive eating behaviors.

People with bulimia are typically preoccupied with body shape and weight, and the purging behaviors can lead to electrolyte imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, depression, dental issues and gastrointestinal problems.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food within a short period, accompanied by a feeling of loss of control. Unlike bulimia, individuals with BED do not regularly engage in compensatory behaviors.

They often experience shame, guilt and distress due to their eating patterns, and the disorder is associated with significant weight gain, obesity and related health problems.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder involves a significant restriction in the amount and variety of food intake, often driven by sensory sensitivities, fears of aversive consequences or a lack of interest in eating. Unlike anorexia, the restriction in ARFID is not driven by body image concerns or a desire for weight loss.


Individuals with ARFID may experience weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and impaired growth and development.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders

Other specified feeding or eating disorders encompass a range of eating disorders that do not meet the full criteria for the above categories but still involve disordered eating patterns. Examples include atypical anorexia nervosa (meeting all criteria except weight), purging disorder (recurrent purging without binge eating) and night eating syndrome (consuming a significant portion of daily calories during nighttime).


Although not technically considered an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, orthorexia is a condition that affects individuals who have an obsession with eating the right foods. Orthorexia differs from other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, because it centers around the quality of food consumed, not the quantity.

Individuals with orthorexia can become so fixated on what they consider healthy eating that they can actually damage their own well-being. Common signs of orthorexia include excessive research on foods, rigidly following dietary rules, and avoiding foods deemed as unhealthy or impure.

How to Know If You Have One

It’s important to be aware of the warning signs of an eating disorder. Identifying the condition early and seeking help will significantly improve your chances of recovery.

Remember that everyone who struggles with an eating disorder has a different experience, and the signs or symptoms won’t always be the same.

Some red flags that indicate a problem in a majority of cases include:

  • Discomfort eating around others
  • Extreme concern about body size and image
  • Obsession with counting calories, fats or carbohydrates
  • Frequent dieting
  • Significant mood swings
  • Extreme weight changes


The treatment of eating disorders typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, combining medical, nutritional and psychological interventions. The specific treatment plan may vary depending on the type and severity of the eating disorder, as well as individual needs and circumstances.

Here are some common components of eating disorder treatment:

1. Medical Management

In severe cases, medical stabilization may be necessary to address any immediate health complications associated with an eating disorder. This may involve monitoring vital signs, managing electrolyte imbalances and addressing nutritional deficiencies.

Regular medical checkups are also important to assess physical health throughout the treatment process.

Addressing any medical complications resulting from the eating disorder is essential. This may involve collaborating with medical specialists, such as endocrinologists, gastroenterologists or dentists, to manage and treat specific health concerns.

2. Nutritional Counseling

Registered dietitians or nutritionists play a crucial role in helping individuals establish a healthy and balanced relationship with food. They provide guidance on meal planning and portion sizes and help individuals develop regular eating patterns.

Nutritional counseling aims to restore proper nutrition and address any underlying nutritional deficiencies. Nutrition professionals are involved in all levels of care, including individual and group treatment in hospitals or residential programs and outpatient programs.

3. Psychotherapy

Various forms of psychotherapy are used in the treatment of eating disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly used to address distorted thoughts and beliefs related to food, body image and self-worth. It helps individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and challenge unhelpful patterns of thinking.

According to research published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, cognitive behavioral therapy has the largest efficacy for adults with eating disorders, specifically bulimia.

Other therapies like dialectical behavior therapy, interpersonal therapy and family-based treatment may also be utilized depending on the specific needs and circumstances of the individual.

4. Supportive Counseling and Therapy

Individual counseling, family therapy or group therapy can provide a safe and supportive environment for individuals to explore the emotional and psychological factors contributing to their eating disorders. This can help address underlying issues, such as low self-esteem, body image concerns, trauma or co-occurring mental health conditions.

5. Medication

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Medications are typically used as an adjunct to psychotherapy and other forms of treatment.

6. Relapse Prevention and Aftercare

Building a strong support system and developing strategies for relapse prevention are important components of long-term recovery from eating disorders. Aftercare plans often include ongoing therapy, regular medical follow-ups, and support groups to maintain progress and prevent relapse.

It’s important to note that the treatment of eating disorders should be individualized and comprehensive, considering the unique needs and circumstances of each person. Recovery from an eating disorder is a journey, and ongoing support and care are essential for sustained healing.


  • An eating disorder is a disruption in eating behavior, with excessive concern about body weight that impairs physical health and psychosocial functioning.
  • These disorders involve a range of emotional, psychological and physical disturbances that significantly impact an individual’s well-being.
  • Eating disorders can affect individuals of any age, gender or background. They are complex conditions that can be influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and sociocultural factors.
  • Some types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.
  • Although the signs and symptoms of eating disorders aren’t the same for everyone, the most common red flags include an obsession with weight and calorie intake, severe mood swings, frequent dieting, and trouble eating in front of others.

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