Eating Disorders Fact Sheet

Find out more information on warning signs for eating disorders.

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How to Start Recovering From an Eating Disorder (1:18)

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and more than 30 million people suffer from eating disorders in the United States alone. 70% don’t receive treatment due to stigma, misperceptions, lack of education, lack of diagnosis, or lack of access to care. Eating Recovery Center (ERC), the only national healthcare system dedicated to treating eating disorders at any stage of the illness, offers details on the warning signs and other contributing factors below.

What are the characteristics of an eating disorder?

Eating disorders can develop in a variety of forms. The three most common diagnoses are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – characterized by an obsessive fear of weight gain, a refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, and typically a distorted body image;
  • Bulimia Nervosa – characterized by patterns of bingeing (consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time) and purging (eliminating calories consumed);
  • Binge Eating Disorder – involves frequent overeating marked by distress and lack of control.

There are, however, other lesser-known forms of eating disorders, such as:

  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) – refers to abnormal eating without all the symptoms required for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder;
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) – previously known as selective eating disorder (SED), which when someone limits the consumption of certain foods based on the food's appearance, smell, taste, texture, or a past negative experience with the food;
  • Orthorexia, Drunkorexia, etc. – the rise of certain behaviors that are not yet considered official diagnoses, but can lead to severe health consequences and develop into actual eating disorders. These include orthorexia, or “clean eating” which can become obsessive when the person’s focus becomes a preoccupation on food quality vs. food quantity, drunkorexia, a trend among college students and 20-somethings involving skipping meals, or immediately purging, to avoid consuming added calories, as well as others.

What does someone with an eating disorder look like?

Eating disorders do not discriminate – they can affect anyone no matter their gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. As many as 25% of people with eating disorders are male, and 13% of women over the age of 50 have eating disorder symptoms. Eating disorders don’t come in one shape or size either. Normal weight or overweight individuals can suffer from an eating disorder, in addition to thin individuals.


What are some of the key warning signs?

Family and friends can be on the lookout for warning signs, depending upon the eating disorder. Some signs include: a constant preoccupation with weight, food, calories, etc., frequent comments about feeling “fat” or being overweight, withdrawal from usual friends and activities, development of food rituals, an excessive, rigid exercise regime, evidence of binge eating or the disappearance of large amounts of food, evidence of purging behaviors, or unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw bone.

Are eating disorders a choice?

No, having an eating disorder is not a choice. People can be predisposed to inheriting an eating disorder. 50-80 percent of the risk of developing an eating disorder is genetic. Sociological factors can also play a role, such as traumatic events, significant life changes, or diets. The choice is whether or not to seek and/or accept treatment.


Why can’t someone get over their eating disorder by simply eating?

Eating disorders do not simply revolve around food. They are complex illnesses rooted in biological, psychological, and sociological issues. While eating disorder behaviors may originate around a fixation on calories and weight, they generally stem from issues beyond food and body size, and often signify an attempt to control some aspect of one’s life. For this reason, it is not helpful when family and friends try to encourage a loved one suffering from an eating disorder to “just eat.”

Can eating disorders co-occur with other issues and disorders?

Yes, eating disorders often present with co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use, all of which can increase the risk of suicide. Not only do eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, but suicide rates are 23% higher in those with eating disorders than in the general population.

Up to 50 percent of individuals with eating disorders abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, compared with just nine percent of the general population. Drug and alcohol use, along with eating disorder behaviors of restriction, bingeing, purging or over-exercise, often serve as coping mechanisms. The root of addiction and eating disorders stems from how the behaviors function as an escape from underlying stress, anxiety, sadness, fear, or trauma.

Mood and anxiety disorders are exceedingly common as well. People with eating disorders have a 64 percent lifetime rate of anxiety disorders, the most common being Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (41%) and social phobia (20%). Mood and anxiety disorders can often persist after eating disorder recovery, so although someone may fully recover from their eating disorder, if they experience a significant life event or trauma later on, they can then develop serious mental health symptoms. It is important to recognize and manage these issues in addition to achieving eating disorder recovery.


Who else is affected besides the person battling the eating disorder?

Eating disorders affect the whole family, loved ones, and friends of those suffering. Incorporating supports into one’s recovery is actually a critical factor – not only in how he or she responds to treatment itself, but also for lasting recovery.

Recently, the Joint Commission, the accrediting body that seeks to improve consumer healthcare by ensuring the safety and efficacy of healthcare organizations, updated its standards of care for eating disorder treatment providers, emphasizing the important role that families play in eating disorder recovery. ERC has always made it a focus to offer families therapy and programming intended to educate, support and care for families at every stage. ERC is extending this commitment with a new family support portal, which will serve as online family community—open to all families, whether their loved ones attended ERC or not. 

About Eating Recovery Center

Eating Recovery Center (ERC) is the only national, vertically integrated, health care system dedicated to the treatment of serious eating and related disorders at any stage of the illness. ERC offers best-in-class treatment programs for all patients, no matter their age or gender, struggling from: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, eating and weight disorder, unspecified eating disorders, as well as comorbid, co-occurring and dual diagnoses. Led by the world’s leading experts in eating disorder treatment, ERC provides a full spectrum of eating disorder recovery services through an unmatched network of multiple locations across seven states.