Eating disorders involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors involving weight and food. Some include anorexia nervosa, binge eating, and bulimia.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height. Persons with anorexia typically avoid or severely restrict food.
People with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other methods to lose weight.
The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are not known. Many factors are involved, such as genes and hormones, and social attitudes that promote very thin body types.
Risk factors for anorexia include:
- Being more worried about, or paying more attention to, weight and shape
- Having an anxiety disorder as a child
- Having a negative self-image
- Having eating problems during infancy or early childhood
- Having certain social or cultural ideas about health and beauty
- Trying to be perfect or overly focused on rules
Anorexia usually begins during the teen years or young adulthood. Although more common among people who identify as women, anorexia affects all gender identities.
Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa include:
- Have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when they are underweight
- Refuse to keep weight at what is considered normal for their age, sex, height, and development.
- Have a distorted sense of body image, be very focused on body weight or shape, and are unable to understand the seriousness of weight loss
- Phyisical health changes such as menstrual period irregularities
People with anorexia may severely limit the amount of food they eat, or they may eat and then make themselves throw up. Other behaviors include:
- Cutting food into small pieces or moving them around the plate instead of eating
- Exercising all the time, even if they are hurt
- Going to the bathroom right after meals
- Refusing to eat around other people
- Using pills to make themselves urinate, have a bowel movement, or decrease their appetite
Other symptoms of anorexia may include:
- Blotchy or yellow skin that is dry and covered with fine hair
- Confused or slow thinking, along with poor memory or judgment
- Dry mouth
- Extreme sensitivity to cold (wearing several layers of clothing to stay warm)
- Loss of bone strength, muscle, and body fat
Binge eating is when a person eats a much larger amount of food in a shorter period of time than they normally would. During binge eating, the person may feel a loss of control.
The cause of binge eating is unknown, however, binge eating sometimes begins during or after strict dieting. Binge eating may occur on its own or with another eating disorder, such as bulimia, and usually leads to becoming overweight.
Signs & Symptoms
A person who binge eats often:
- Eats excessive numbers of calories in one sitting, often alone
- Feeling unable to control their eating
- Eating very quickly
- Eating even when they're not hungry
- Snacks, in addition to eating three meals a day
- Overeats throughout the day
- Feeling upset about their eating behaviors
Bulimia is an illness in which a person binges on food, or has regular episodes of overeating, and feels a loss of control over their eating. The person then uses different methods to prevent weight gain, such as vomiting or abusing laxatives.
The affected person is usually aware that their eating pattern is abnormal and may feel fear or guilt when they binge and purge. The disorder is most common in adolescent girls and young women.
The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. Genetics, psychological, trauma, family, society, or cultural factors may play a role. Bulimia is likely due to more than one factor.
Signs & Symptoms
People with bulimia often eat large amounts of high-calorie foods, usually in secret. People can feel a lack of control over their eating during these episodes. Eating and binging episodes may occur as often as several times a day for many months or longer.
It is common that binge eating will lead to a feeling of self-disgust, which causes purging to prevent weight gain, bringing a sense of relief.
Bulimia may include:
- Forcing oneself to vomit
- Excessive exercise
- Using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics (water pills)
People with bulimia are often at a normal weight as overweight, but they have a distorted view of their body image. Because the person's weight is often normal, other people may not notice this eating disorder.
- Chronically inflamed and sore throat
- Increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth (due to stomach acid when vomiting)
- Severe dehydration (electrolyte imbalances can lead to heart attack or stroke)
- Suddenly eating large amounts of food or buying large amounts of food that disappear right away
- Regularly going to the bathroom right after meals
- Throwing away packages of laxatives, diet pills, emetics (drugs that cause vomiting), or diuretics
Get Help for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can be fatal due to various medical complications and the high risk of associated suicide. Treatment plans can include psychotherapy, medical care, nutrition counseling, or medications.
Learn how to talk about mental health to help you speak to a loved one who you may think is experiencing any mental health concerns.
- If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
- To learn how to get support for mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov.
- To locate treatment facilities or providers, visit FindTreatment.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).
- National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders
- National Institute of Mental Health: Eating Disorders
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Binge Eating Disorder
- Office on Women’s Health: Eating Disorders
- Binge Eating Disorder Fact Sheet (PDF | 89 KB)
- National Institute of Mental Health: Mental Health Minute (1 minute, 17 seconds)
- National Eating Disorders: What are Eating Disorders
- Mayo Clinic: Anorexia Nervosa
- Mayo Clinic: Bulimia
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders