Understanding The Three Most Common Types Of Eating Disorders And Their Symptoms


Binges are often kept secret and associated with feelings of shame or embarrassment. (Image: Shutterstock)

These conditions can affect individuals of any age, gender, or background. Not only can it cause significant physical harm but can also lead to emotional harm.

Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions that involve disordered eating patterns and distorted attitudes toward food, weight, and body image. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are seven eating disorders. These are namely, Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED), and Pica. and Rumination Disorder. Let us take a look at three of the most common eating disorders and how these manifest into symptoms:

Anorexia nervosa

American Psychiatric Association states that this is a serious eating disorder that involves self-starvation and results in low body weight for height and age. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis, except for opioid use disorder. Typically, individuals with anorexia nervosa have a body mass index (BMI) of under 18.5.

People with this eating disorder engage in dieting behaviours due to a fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. While they might say they want to gain weight, their actions are not consistent with this goal.

Anorexia nervosa has two subtypes: the restricting type, in which people primarily lose weight by dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise, and the binge-eating/purging type, in which individuals also engage in intermittent binge-eating or purging behaviours.

The following are some common symptoms reported by the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Severely limited food intake
  • Severe thinness (emaciation)
  • Continual striving for thinness and unwillingness to maintain a regular or healthy weight
  • Extreme anxiety about gaining weight
  • Altered body image, is self-esteem that is strongly influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a refusal to acknowledge the gravity of low body weight.

Bulimia Nervosa

Individuals often alternate between restrictive eating or consuming only “safe” low-calorie foods, and binge eating “forbidden” high-calorie foods. Binge eating involves eating a large amount of food in a short period of time and feeling a loss of control over what or how much one is consuming. Binges are often kept secret and associated with feelings of shame or embarrassment. These episodes can be very large and food is often consumed rapidly, beyond the point of fullness to the point of nausea and discomfort.

Binge eating occurs at least once a week and is usually followed by “compensatory behaviours” to prevent weight gain. These can include fasting, vomiting, laxative misuse, or compulsive exercise.

People with bulimia nervosa can be slightly underweight, normal weight, overweight, or even obese. However, if they are significantly underweight, they are considered to have anorexia nervosa binge-eating/purging type instead of bulimia nervosa.

The following symptoms are related to this eating disorder:

  • A throat that is chronically inflamed and painful
  • Swelling of the salivary glands in the neck and jaw region
  • Tooth enamel that has been worn down and teeth that have become increasingly sensitive and decayed due to exposure to stomach acid
  • Acid reflux disease and other gastrointestinal issues
  • Irritation and intestinal distress caused by laxative misuse
  • Severe dehydration as a result of purging fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalances, which can lead to stroke or heart attack, are caused by levels of sodium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals that are too high or too low.

Binge Eating Disorder

Similar to bulimia nervosa, individuals who have binge eating disorder have episodes of binge eating during which they eat a large amount of food in a short period of time, feel a sense of loss of control over their eating, and are distressed by their binge eating. However, unlike people with bulimia nervosa, individuals with binge eating disorder do not usually engage in compensatory behaviours such as vomiting, fasting, exercising or laxative abuse. This can have serious health consequences, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.

The symptoms of this eating disorder are as follows:

  • Consuming abnormally large amounts of food within a specific period, typically two hours
  • Eating even when one is not hungry or already full
  • Quickly eating large amounts of food during binges
  • Continuing to eat until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating in secrecy or alone due to feelings of embarrassment
  • Experiencing negative emotions, such as shame or guilt, related to eating behaviour
  • Engaging in frequent dieting, possibly without achieving weight loss.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or someone you know, seeking help from a healthcare professional is crucial.

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