Eating Disorders | Everything You Need to Know

2022-06-06 8 mins

A big misconception about eating disorders is they are no health issues but lifestyle choices. In reality, eating disorders are complex, severe, and often fatal health problems that are associated with unhealthy eating habits and related emotions. This type of mental illness when left untreated can cause severe health consequences that may even result in death. The common eating disorders which we will be discussing in this article include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder

Signs and Symptoms:

Anorexia Nervosa:

This is the most widely known eating disorder which involves the severe restriction of food. Some people suffering from this condition completely avoid the food while others eat certain foods but only in small quantities. All these struggles are to lose weight significantly. People with this psychological condition see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight.

Anorexia nervosa is further subdivided into two types:

  • restrictive subtype
  • binge-purge subtype

Restrictive subtype:  People experiencing this subtype of anorexia nervosa strictly limit the amount and type of food they eat.

Binge-purge subtype:  In this subtype also people restrict the food they consume. However, these people may also purge the food, eating a large amount of food in one sitting followed by the use of diuretics or laxatives to excrete out all the extra consumption.

Anorexia nervosa has a high mortality rate. Compared to other mental health disorders, this eating disorder is more fatal. People suffering from anorexia nervosa can die due to many complications associated with starvation. Such people are also at greater risk of committing suicide, making it the second leading cause of death.

Symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa include:

  • Severely restricted diet
  • Muscle wasting, leading to extreme thinness
  • Persistently resist attaining normal weight or relentless desire to be skinny
  • Afraid of gaining weight (even normal weight)
  • A strong influence of body shape or body weight on self-esteem
  • Disfigured body shape along with a denial of dangerously being underweight

Symptoms that may develop over time are:

  • Thinning and weakening of bones (osteoporosis)
  • Low blood hemoglobin levels, fatigue, and muscle weakness
  • Brittle and dry hair and nails
  • Pale, yellow, and dry skin
  • Growth of fine and soft hair that covers the whole body (lanugo)
  • Difficulty in passing stools (constipation)
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Breathing problems and slow pulse rate
  • Damage to the heart, leading to its decreased functioning
  • Damage to the brain
  • Decrease in metabolic rate that causes a drop in the internal body temperature causing an individual to feel cold and lethargic
  • Multi-organ system failure
  • Fatigue, tiredness, or sluggishness all the time
  • Reduced sexual performance and infertility

Bulimia Nervosa:

Similar to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is also gaining attention these days. However, this eating disorder is completely opposite to anorexia because, in bulimia, people experience repeated episodes of eating a substantial amount of food at a certain time. Each episode continues until painfully full followed by behaviors that compensate for the overeating, for example, the use of diuretics and laxatives.

People suffering from bulimia nervosa are overweight or normal weight and sometimes slightly underweight.

Symptoms associated with bulimia nervosa include:

  • Sore throat along with swollen salivary glands especially in the neck region
  • Tooth enamel erosion followed by increased sensitivity and decaying of teeth due to frequent exposure to stomach acid
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and other stomach problems
  • Intestinal irritation due to excessive use of laxatives
  • Severe dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalance can disturb the heart functions increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack

Binge-eating disorder:

In this condition, the individual loses control over their eating and eats unusually large amounts of food in a relatively short duration of time. The symptoms of binge-eating disorder are much similar to bulimia except that the periods of binge-eating are not followed by the behaviors to get rid of the extra food and excessive exercising.  This is the reason why individuals with this type of eating disorder are mostly obese.

Symptoms associated with binge-eating disorder are:

  • Eating a large amount of food despite being full in a very short duration of time such as a 1 to 2 hours period
  • Eating in secret and until painfully full
  • Eating fast
  • Eating alone out of fear of being caught or emabrassarment
  • Feelings of shame and guilt about eating such large quantities of food
  • Frequently struggle for weight loss but can’t achieve the goal

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID):

This eating disorder was previously known as a selective eating disorder. As the name suggests, in avoidant restrictive food intake disorder people restrict both the amount and type of food eaten due to a lack of interest in eating. People suffering from this eating disorder have no distorted body image or persistent fear of becoming overweight. Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder affects many individuals, particularly children. Children suffering from this problem can’t consume enough calories and therefore can’t develop properly. Similarly in adults ARFID interrupts the maintenance of basic body functions.

Symptoms associated with ARFID include:

  • Restriction of type or amount of food that can prevent the consumption of enough calories
  • Lack of interest in eating
  • Significant weight loss and poor body development
  • Abdominal pain and other stomach and intestinal issues
  • Nutritional deficiencies due to picky eating

Risk Factors:

Eating disorders are types of psychological illness that can affect any person irrespective of their age, gender, race, and body weight. An individual can develop an eating disorder in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or later in life.

Researchers are now using the latest technology to understand these problems and find their root causes. They are working to find out the genetic variations that can cause eating disorder that runs in families.

Brain imaging studies are also being done to understand the concept. For instance, researchers have observed an obvious difference in patterns of brain activity in healthy women and women suffering from some eating disorder. This type of research can help make advancements in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders.

Treatment and therapies for eating disorders:

Individuals experiencing an eating disorder are at risk of developing other medical complications and committing suicide.

These medical complications include mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Below are the steps that should be followed for successful treatment of eating disorders

  • Psychotherapy
  • Proper monitoring
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Medications


The goal of psychotherapy is for parents of affected adolescents to take responsibility for feeding their child and help him fulfill his nutritional requirements. People suffering from the disorder can also be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy to help them organize their distorted thoughts.

They should also be counseled through online counseling sessions or virtual counseling about how to deal with the situation.


Medications such as anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, or mood stabilizers can also be used to manage the situation and prevent other medical complications such as anxiety, stress, or depression. The best approach is to consult with the health care provider before taking any medications.


Eating disorders are the type of psychological disorders that disturb the normal eating pattern of a person. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders if left untreated can develop other medical complications. Therefore it is inevitable to seek professional help, attend counseling sessions and take some medications for effective results.

All information in this article is written based on the publication of The National Institute of Mental Health, a U.S based federal agency that researches mental disorders. The experts of NIMH provide information on mental health problems and the latest mental health research.