Eating Disorders: What Are They & What Are the Signs?

Know how to identify symptoms and find help for you or a loved on.

Eating Disorders: What Are They & What Are the Signs?

About 30 million people in the U.S. will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and thousands of people die each year as a result of their disorder. There's so much stigma, misperception, lack of education, lack of diagnosis, and lack of care when it comes to these conditions. So here's what you need to know about the difference between eating disorders, what signs to look for, what causes them, and what treatment and recovery may look like.

What Are Eating Disorders?

People can have disordered eating in many ways and are typically focusing their thoughts on food and their body weight. They experience extreme disturbances in their eating behaviors and their related thoughts and emotions. Eating disorders are illnesses. Here are three of the most common disorders.


Anorexia Nervosa

Characterized by an obsessive fear of weight gain. The person doesn't get enough calories, which leads to their extremely low weight. They may experience distorted body image and may not be aware of their true weight

Bulimia Nervosa

Characterized by patterns of bingeing (consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time) and behavior to compensate for it. That could include fasting, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or taking medication.

Binge Eating Disorder

Involves frequent episodes of bingeing or overeating. The person may eat faster than normal, eat until they are uncomfortably full, or eat without actually being hungry. They may also feel guilty or depressed after the episode.

Orthorexia

Characterized by a fixation on "healthy" or "clean" eating. The person can experience compulsive checking of food labels, cutting out more and more food categories (all sugar, all fat, all carbs, etc), showing distress when "safe" or "healthy" food isn't available at a party or restaurant, inability to eat outside of designated "safe" or "healthy" foods, and body image concerns.

Other disorders include:

Other Specified Feeding & Eating Disorders (OSFED), previously known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Soecified, 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), is 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.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder involves a person having inaccurate perceptions of their body or specific body parts. The person can imagine defects or fixate on things other people may not even see.

Who Can Have Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can affect anyone no matter their gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Experts say as many as one-third of people with eating disorders are men. People with these conditions can have any body type and any weight.

What Are Key Warning Signs?

While the specific signs vary between disorders (which you can read more about here), family and friends can watch for these overarching signs:

  • Weight loss or or noticeable weight fluctuation
  • Mood swings or mental health conditions like anxiety or depression
  • Dizziness upon standing
  • Declined health in hair, nails, teeth or skin
  • Complaints of stomach pain or gastric destress
  • 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 binge eating-compensatory behaviors, like unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw bone

What Causes Eating Disorders?

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, but they are complex illnesses rooted in biological, psychological, and sociological factors. While eating disorder behaviors may originate around a fixation on calories and weight, they commonly co-occur with other mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety.

Risk factors include:

  • Family history of eating disorders
  • Prevalence of other mental illness
  • Dieting and starvation, which can affect the brain's mood and thinking, therefore continuing the disordered eating cycle
  • Stress from work, family, friends or school

What to Do If You See Signs in a Loved One

It's important to talk with them with love, compassion and empathy.

  • Get the facts. Learn as much as you can about eating disorders so you can bring this knowledge to the conversation.
  • Because there is often shame associated with a person's eating disorder, use "I" statements when speaking with them about your concerns. Do not blame them or make assumptions about their situation.
  • Talk in private. Eating disorders are sensitive and emotional topics. So find a time and place where the person feels safe to talk openly and honestly.
  • Avoid suggesting overly simplistic solutions, like "just eat."
  • Encourage them to get professional help. Doctors and counselors can help them overcome disordered eating while also working through any underlying mental health conditions.

Where Can They Get Help?

The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline for people who have an eating disorder or who know someone who does. You can chat, call or text.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders also has a helpline to get resources for you or a loved one. Call 888.-375-7767.

The Eating Recovery Center offers in-person treatment for people of all ages and genders with eating disorders. There are locations in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Washington.

Feel out of control of your eating habits? Or perhaps you feel you control your eating a little too much? Mallika Chopra, a meditation and wellness coach — as well as the author of numerous mindfulness books for kids and adults, leads you in this simple and calming meditation to focus on nourishing your body and mind.

For more mindfulness tips from Mallika, check out her website and her book "Living With Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy."

Keep Reading Show less