What You Need To Know About Eating Disorders - Types, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that impact an individual’s attitudes and behaviours surrounding food, such as having severe distress or concern about body weight or shape and adopting irregular eating habits (1).
In this article you can find:
- What are eating disorders?
- What are some common types of eating disorders?
- What causes an eating disorder?
- Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder
- How do you treat an eating disorder?
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders (also referred to as EDs) are defined by abnormal or disturbed eating patterns such as eating too much, eating too little, or becoming obsessed with your body weight or shape. While eating disorders are treatable, they are a serious and potentially fatal illness, with the greatest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness (2).
What are some common types of eating disorders?
The most widely recognized eating disorder is anorexia nervosa. Individuals with anorexia nervosa try to keep their weight as low as possible due to a strong fear of gaining weight. Some ways they do this is by avoiding particular foods, severely restricting their calorie intake, or excessively exercising. Obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as persistent intrusive thoughts about food, are also common (8).
Bulimia nervosa involves consuming an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time, usually until you feel painfully full. Individuals with bulimia may feel as if they are unable to stop eating or regulate how much they consume. After they consume a large amount of food, bulimia sufferers will then attempt to get rid of the food by making themselves vomit, taking laxatives, excessive exercising, or fasting (9). This is what is known as ‘purging’.
Binge eating disorder
The most common eating disorder is believed to be binge eating disorder. Similar to those with bulimia nervosa, an individual suffering from binge eating disorder will often consume a large amount of food in a short period of time and feel out of control during this time. However, binge eating disorder differs to bulimia nervosa as it does not involve controlling calories or employing purging behaviors to compensate for their binges. As a result, individuals with binge eating disorder tend to be overweight or obese.
Orthorexia is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Unlike other eating disorders, individuals with orthorexia are predominantly concerned with food quality rather than quantity, rather than decreasing their weight. However, their concern about food quality goes beyond that of a normal health concern and dramatically affects their everyday lives. For example, the affected individual may eliminate entire food groups out of fear of being unhealthy. Moreover, how successfully the individual sticks to their self-imposed diet guidelines can determine their self-worth, identity, and happiness.
While awareness surrounding orthorexia is increasing, it has not been yet recognized as a separate eating disorder by the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Although, many scientific studies are currently being carried out on the subject (10).
What causes an eating disorder?
The exact cause of eating disorders is not yet known. However, there a multitude of factors that can increase their likelihood. This includes:
- Specific personality traits (such as neuroticism, perfectionism, impulsivity)
- Having received criticism for eating habits, body shape or weight
- Expectations to be slim
- Exposure to media that promotes certain standards
- Sexual abuse
- Low self esteem
Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder
Individuals with an eating disorder can present a variety of symptoms related to their specific condition, as well as personal factors. However, most include severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviour (3). Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Unusual behaviour around food (skipping meals, adopting a very strict diet, consuming very little food, consuming too much food, eating in secret)
- Strange behaviour around mealtimes (not eating, frequently leaving the table to use the bathroom, unwilling to eat the same food as friends or family)
- Purging (vomiting, consumption of laxatives, supplements or herbs to promote weight loss, excessive exercise)
- Obsessing over body image (continuously talking about body shape or size, feelings of shame or disgust about one’s body image, hyper focus on healthy eating)
How do you treat an eating disorder?
Eating disorders can be treated with professional help from a healthcare practitioner that specialises in eating disorders, as well as from a support system of friends and family. The treatment for eating disorders depends on the type of disorder and the symptoms the individual is experiencing. It usually consists of a mix of psychological counseling, nutrition education, medical monitoring and sometimes medication. Treatment can also include addressing additional health issues caused by the eating disorder. If treatment fails to improve an eating disorder, hospitalization or another sort of inpatient program may be required.
If you believe you might have an eating disorder, consult your GP as soon as possible. If you suspect a friend or family member may have, let them know you're concerned and encourage them to see their primary care physician, in which you could offer to accompany them.
The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, Bodywhys, offers a support helpline to those who wish to contact them. Their contact number is 012107906. Visit https://www.bodywhys.ie for more information regarding their support services, getting treatment, supporting a friend or family member with an eating disorder, and nutritional education surrounding eating disorders.
- Eating Disorder Hope - Resources for Anorexia, Bulimia & Binge Eating. (2021). Retrieved 18 May 2021, from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/
- Colleluori, G., Goria, I., Zillanti, C., Marucci, S., & Dalla Ragione, L. (2021). Eating disorders during COVID-19 pandemic: the experience of Italian healthcare providers. Eating And Weight Disorders - Studies On Anorexia, Bulimia And Obesity. doi: 10.1007/s40519-021-01116-5
- Learn about 6 common types of eating disorders and their symptoms. (2021). Retrieved 18 May 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-eating-disorders
- Culbert, K., Racine, S., & Klump, K. (2015). Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders - a synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research.Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 56(11), 1141-1164. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12441
- Stice, E., Marti, C., & Rohde, P. (2013). Prevalence, incidence, impairment, and course of the proposed DSM-5 eating disorder diagnoses in an 8-year prospective community study of young women. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 445-457. doi: 10.1037/a0030679
- Keel, P., & Klump, K. (2003). Are eating disorders culture-bound syndromes? Implications for conceptualizing their etiology. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 747-769. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.747
- King, J., Geisler, D., Ritschel, F., Boehm, I., Seidel, M., & Roschinski, B. et al. (2015). Global Cortical Thinning in Acute Anorexia Nervosa Normalizes Following Long-Term Weight Restoration. Biological Psychiatry, 77(7), 624-632. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.09.005
- Anorexia nervosa - Symptoms. (2021). Retrieved 18 May 2021, from https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/mental-health/anorexia-nervosa/anorexia-nervosa-symptoms.html
- Bulimia - Symptoms. (2021). Retrieved 18 May 2021, from https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/mental-health/bulimia/bulimia-symptoms.html
- French, C. (2021). Orthorexia nervosa: Evaluating Potential At-risk Populations and Diagnostic Criteria in an Emerging Eating Disorder. Retrieved 18 May 2021, from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/conferences/index.php/iuurc/iuurc21/paper/view/217