There is a commonly held misconception that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Preoccupation with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
People with anorexia nervosa may see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. While many people with this disorder die from complications associated with starvation, others die of suicide.
Extremely restricted eating
Extreme thinness (emaciation)
A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
Intense fear of gaining weight
Distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
Other symptoms may develop over time, including:
Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
Brittle hair and nails
Dry and yellowish skin
Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
Low blood pressure slowed breathing and pulse
Damage to the structure and function of the heart
Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
People with bulimia nervosa have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. This binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. People with bulimia nervosa may be slightly underweight, normal weight, or over overweight.
Chronically inflamed and sore throat
Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
Worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
Electrolyte imbalance which can lead to stroke or heart attack
People with binge-eating disorder lose control over his or her eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese. Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as a 2-hour period
Eating even when you're full or not hungry
Eating fast during binge episodes
Eating until you're uncomfortably full
Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about your eating
Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss
Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, and genders. Eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood, but may also develop during childhood or later in life. These disorders affect both genders, although rates among women are higher than among men.
Researchers are finding that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. Eating disorders tend to run in families. Researchers are working to identify DNA variations that are linked to the increased risk of developing eating disorders.
It is important to seek treatment early for eating disorders. People with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications but complete recovery is possible. People with eating disorders can also have other mental disorders (such as depression or anxiety) or problems with substance use. Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and may include one or more of the following: individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy, medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling and medications.