Although the term eating is in the name, eating disorders are about more than food. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course.
These disorders are described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In South Africa an estimated 2 million women and 3 million men have or have had an eating disorder at some point in their life.
Here I will only focus on the six most common types of eating disorders and their symptoms.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop. They might start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.
In severe cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and may even result in death if left untreated.
Those with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms. However, most include the severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or over-exercising.
Although eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, they’re most often reported in adolescents and young women. In fact, up to 13% of youth may experience at least one eating disorder by the age of 20.
Summary Eating disorders are mental health conditions marked by an obsession with food or body shape. They can affect anyone but are most prevalent among young women.
What causes them?
Experts believe that eating disorders may be caused by a variety of factors.
One of these is genetics. Twin and adoption studies involving twins who were separated at birth and adopted by different families provide some evidence that eating disorders may be hereditary.
This type of research has generally shown that if one twin develops an eating disorder, the other has a 50% likelihood of developing one too, on average.
Personality traits are another cause. In particular, neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are three personality traits often linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
Other potential causes include perceived pressures to be thin, cultural preferences for thinness, and exposure to media promoting such ideals.
In fact, certain eating disorders appear to be mostly nonexistent in cultures that haven’t been exposed to Western ideals of thinness.
That said, culturally accepted ideals of thinness are very present in many areas of the world. Yet, in some countries, few individuals end up developing an eating disorder. Thus, they are likely caused by a mix of factors.
More recently, experts have proposed that differences in brain structure and biology may also play a role in the development of eating disorders.
In particular, levels of the brain messengers serotonin and dopamine may be factors.
However, more studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary Eating disorders may be caused by several factors. These include genetics, brain biology, personality traits, and cultural ideals.
1. 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 calories.
Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:
- being considerably underweight compared with people of similar age and height
very restricted eating patterns
- an 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
Obsessive-compulsive symptoms are also often present. For instance, many people with anorexia are often preoccupied with constant thoughts about food, and some may obsessively collect recipes or hoard food.
Such individuals may also have difficulty eating in public and exhibit a strong desire to control their environment, limiting their ability to be spontaneous.
Anorexia is officially categorized into two sub-types – the restricting type and the binge eating and purging type.
- Individuals with the restricting type lose weight solely through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise.
- Individuals with the binge eating and purging type may binge on large amounts of food or eat very little. In both cases, after they eat, they purge using activities like vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, or exercising excessively.
Anorexia can be very damaging to the body. Over time, individuals living with it may experience the thinning of their bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and the growth of a layer of fine hair all over their body .
In severe cases, anorexia can result in heart, brain, or multi-organ failure and death.
People with anorexia nervosa may limit their food intake or compensate for it through various purging behaviors. They have an intense fear of gaining weight, even when severely underweight.
2. Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is another well-known eating disorder.
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 normally avoid.
Individuals with bulimia then attempt to purge to compensate for the calories consumed and relieve gut discomfort.
Common purging behaviors include forced vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and excessive exercise.
Symptoms may appear very similar to those of the binge eating or purging subtypes of anorexia nervosa. However, individuals with bulimia usually maintain a relatively normal weight, rather than becoming underweight.
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
- a self-esteem overly influenced by body shape and weight
- a fear of gaining weight, despite having a normal 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.
In severe cases, bulimia can also create an imbalance in levels of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. This can cause a stroke or heart attack.
People with bulimia nervosa eat large amounts of food in short periods of time, then purge. They fear gaining weight despite being at a normal weight.
3. Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder is believed to be one of the most common eating disorders, especially in the United States.
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 sub-type 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 foods 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 binging
People with binge eating disorder often have overweight or obesity. This may increase their risk of medical complications linked to excess weight, such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
People with binge eating disorder regularly and uncontrollably consume large amounts of food in short periods of time. Unlike people with other eating disorders, they do not purge.
Pica is another eating disorder that involves eating things that are not considered food.
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, as well as children and adolescents. That said, this disorder is most frequently observed in children, pregnant women, and individuals with mental disabilities.
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.
However, to be considered pica, the eating of non-food substances must not be a normal part of someone’s culture or religion. In addition, it must not be considered a socially acceptable practice by a person’s peers.
Individuals with pica tend to crave and eat non-food substances. This disorder may particularly affect children, pregnant women, and individuals with mental disabilities.
5. Rumination disorder
Rumination disorder is another newly recognized eating disorder.
It describes a condition in which a person regurgitates food they have previously chewed and swallowed, re-chews it, and then either re-swallows it or spits it out.
This rumination typically occurs within the first 30 minutes after a meal. Unlike medical conditions like reflux, it’s voluntary.
This disorder can develop during infancy, childhood, or adulthood. In infants, it tends to develop between 3 – 12 months of age and often disappears on its own. Children and adults with the condition usually require therapy to resolve it.
If not resolved in infants, rumination disorder can result in weight loss and severe malnutrition that can be fatal.
Adults with this disorder may restrict the amount of food they eat, especially in public. This may lead them to lose weight and become underweight.
Rumination disorder can affect people at all stages of life. People with the condition generally regurgitate the food they’ve recently swallowed. Then, they chew it again and either swallow it or spit it out.
6. Avoidant / restrictive food intake disorder
Avoidant / restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a new name for an old disorder.
The term replaces what was known as a “feeding disorder of infancy and early childhood,” a diagnosis previously reserved for children under 7 years old.
Although ARFID generally develops during infancy or early childhood, it can persist into adulthood. What’s more, it’s equally common among men and women.
Individuals with this disorder experience disturbed eating either due to a lack of interest in eating or 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 sufficient calories or nutrients
- eating habits that interfere with normal 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 normal 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.
ARFID is an eating disorder that causes people to undereat. This is either due to a lack of interest in food or an intense distaste for how certain foods look, smell, or taste.
Other eating disorders
In addition to the six eating disorders above, less-known or less common eating disorders also exist. These generally fall under one of three categories:
- 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, often after awakening from sleep.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). While not found in the report, this includes any other conditions that have symptoms similar to those of an eating disorder but don’t fit into any of the categories above.
One disorder that may currently fall under OSFED is orthorexia. Although increasingly mentioned in the media and scientific studies, orthorexia has yet to be recognized as a separate eating disorder by the current DSM.
Individuals with orthorexia tend to have an obsessive focus on healthy eating, to an extent that disrupts their daily lives.
For instance, the affected person may eliminate entire food groups, fearing they’re unhealthy. This can lead to malnutrition, severe weight loss, difficulty eating outside the home, and emotional distress.
Individuals with orthorexia rarely focus on losing weight. Instead, their self-worth, identity, or satisfaction is dependent upon how well they comply with their self-imposed diet rules.
Summary Purging disorder and night eating syndrome are two additional eating disorders that are currently not well described. The OSFED category includes all eating disorders, such as orthorexia, that don’t fit into another category.
Eating disorders are mental health conditions that usually require treatment. They can also be damaging to the body if left untreated. If you have an eating disorder or know someone that might have one, seek help from a healthcare practitioner that specializes in eating disorders.
Disclaimer – Although the methods listed above may help many people, they are not a substitute for medical treatment or medications. They should only ever be used alongside other prescribed treatments from your GP. Always consult with your GP if you are concerned about your health issue. The information given is for personal information and interest only. It is not intended to offer professional medical advice or treatment of any condition.