What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder isn’t just a person “choosing” to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors. It is a serious mental health condition which can have serious consequences if left untreated.

Definition of eating disorders

In fact, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental health disorders. [1] This is why it’s so important for people to understand more about these conditions, what causes them, what they may look like, and how to help.

While there is no cure for eating disorders, there is effective treatment. These conditions can be successfully managed, allowing people to live healthy, balanced lives.

Eating Disorder Definition

Eating disorders are specific types of mental disorders that are characterized by severe disturbances in eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. [2]

People with these conditions often have a serious preoccupation with food, body weight, and body shape and frequently harbor a fear of gaining weight to the point where it becomes a detriment to their mental health.

In developing eating disorders, these fixations, fears, and anxieties will begin to manifest as different disordered eating behaviors. As a result, people struggling with these conditions often develop a number of physical symptoms relating to malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances, some of which can be severe or even deadly. [3]

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is a term used to describe a number of eating disorder symptoms related to problematic eating behaviors.

Disordered eating can take many forms, including overeating, under-eating, and extreme picky eating. The phrase is sometimes also extended to describe the inappropriate compensatory behaviors some people use after eating, especially after binge eating episodes. This can include self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or other methods used in an attempt to avoid weight gain.

While disordered eating is unhealthy and likely signals that a person should speak with a mental health professional, a person can engage in occasional disordered eating without having an eating disorder. Still, regularly engaging in disordered eating is a sign of most common eating disorders.

What Are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?

There are many different types of eating disorders, with researchers working all the time to further understand these conditions.

Still, some eating disorders are more common than others.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder characterized by a person severely restricting their food intake, actively avoiding food, or eating only very specific foods in small quantities. This is often coupled with an intense fear of gaining weight, as well as a preoccupation with the topics of body weight, body shape, and food in general, and typically marked by significant weight loss.

There are two subtypes of AN, including: [4]

  • Restrictive anorexia nervosa
  • Binge-purge anorexia nervosa.

The restrictive subtype of anorexia nervosa is the more common manifestation of this condition. It involves the severe limitation of food and calories but no compensatory behavior in the case where someone does eat or eats more than they had intended.

The binge-purge subtype of anorexia nervosa also involves restricted food intake, but someone with this form of AN will also occasionally experience a binge eating episode, where a large amount of food is consumed during a short period of time. After these episodes, people with binge-purge AN are likely to engage in compensatory purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse.

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa (BN) frequently experience cycles of binging and purging.

Aside from involving a larger-than-normal amount of food, the binge eating episodes that occur with this disorder are also marked by a loss of a sense of control over what or how much food is eaten. Someone with BN will likely then follow up on these episodes with some form of inappropriate compensatory behavior.

There are also two major types of bulimia nervosa, including:

These designations refer to the type of compensatory behaviors someone typically uses. Those who experience purging-type BN are more likely to physically expel the food from their body through self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, or other means. Those with non-purging BN will compensate with other types of behaviors, including excessive exercise or periods of fasting.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) shares some similarities with bulimia nervosa. It is also characterized by a frequent loss of control over eating and binge eating episodes. But people with BED do not follow these up with compensatory behaviors. 

A preoccupation with body, shape, and size is common among people with this condition, as is low self-esteem. Many people with BED attempt to severely restrict food or participate in diets but eventually lose control or are otherwise triggered, leading to binging episodes.

People with binge eating disorder are often considered medically overweight or obese, though this is not always the case.

While BED is one of the more newly-designated types of eating disorder, it is actually considered the most common eating disorder in the United States. [2]

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the official record of all recognized mental health disorders, does not fully pathologize every type of disordered eating behavior.

Some conditions may need further research to be more fully understood, while others may rest somewhere in the gray area between eating disorders and other mental health disorders. These in-between conditions are designated as other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).

Some conditions that are frequently categorized as OSFED include:

  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
  • Night eating syndrome
  • Rumination disorder
  • Purging disorder
  • Atypical anorexia nervosa, or atypical forms of other established eating disorders

What Are Common Signs of Eating Disorders?

As eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors can span the gamut, there are a number of different signs and risk factors.

These conditions can also manifest in a number of ways, including physical symptoms, emotional or behavioral symptoms, or the development of medical complications.

Physical Signs of an Eating Disorder

Some of the most common physical signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Brittle nails
  • Cuts and calluses across finger joints (often a sign of self-induced vomiting), sometimes called Russell’s Sign
  • Dental problems
  • Dizziness
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Fainting
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Fine hair on the body (lanugo)
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Impaired immune function
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Muscle weakness
  • Impaired healing processes
  • Swelling around the salivary glands, sometimes called bulimia cheeks
  • Yellow skin

Emotional or Behavioral Signs of an Eating Disorder

Some of the most common emotional or behavioral signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Adopting strict rules around food
  • Adopting strange food rituals, such as not allowing certain foods to touch
  • Frequently participating in diets
  • Discomfort eating around others or frequently eating alone
  • Avoiding events that involve food
  • Self-isolating
  • Eating in secret or hoarding food
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Preoccupation with appearance, such as frequently looking at oneself in the mirror/judging the way others look
  • Low self-esteem or poor body image
  • Fixation on food, weight, body weight, shape, and size, calories, and/or nutritional information
  • Extreme pickiness based on food texture, color, or other seemingly arbitrary traits
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or entire groups of foods, such as carbohydrates
  • Problems concentrating
  • Skipping meals
  • Trouble sleeping

Detecting an Eating Disorder

It’s important to remember that eating disorders range in severity. Some people’s symptoms may be more obvious or more difficult for them to control or conceal than others.

It’s also not uncommon for someone to be in denial of their condition. Others may realize there’s a problem but work to hide their disordered eating behaviors.

Even when someone is at the point of realizing there’s a problem, they may struggle to admit their behavior is doing more harm than good. And these views may be further reinforced by the predominance of diet culture, which encourages people to achieve an “ideal” body, usually by less-than-healthy means.

Unfortunately, all of this can make it difficult to spot an eating disorder. But if you’re worried about a loved one, there may be some ways to help. It may feel uncomfortable to approach this subject with a loved one, but it could lead to a major positive change or even save their life.

Person with anorexia

Dangers of Eating Disorders

While eating disorders can very quickly cause physical problems, when left untreated, they can make a significant impact on a person’s mental and physical health.

Generally, problems, both mental and physical, become worse the longer the disorder goes on, and in worst-case scenarios, these disorders can even have fatal consequences. [5] 

Physical Dangers of Eating Disorders

Eating and digesting food is how the body absorbs nutrients, which are key to its systems continuing to function. When the body does not receive enough food over a prolonged period of time, it will go into starvation mode, essentially breaking down its own bones and muscles for necessary nutrients and undergoing other dangerous changes. 

In cases where someone overeats, it can bring on a suite of other health complications. Issues with heart health, blood pressure spikes, diabetes, and hormonal complications, among other symptoms, are not uncommon.

And when someone’s weight and eating habits yo-yo, this can put a huge amount of stress on internal systems, leading to a cascade of other issues. Perhaps most crucially in these scenarios is the danger of creating an electrolyte imbalance, which can be deadly.

Emotional Dangers of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders may manifest physically, but they are, at their core, mental health problems.

Most people who struggle with an eating disorder simultaneously experience other mental health conditions, including a range of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. These mood disorders may function to drive the eating disorder or the other way around, but the issues are nearly always closely intertwined.

Further, most people with eating disorders experience low self-esteem, poor body image, and a negative sense of self-worth. When combined with mood disorders and the dangerous physical changes brought on by these conditions, these factors can prove particularly worrisome.

Suicidal ideation is unfortunately common among the population of people with eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is especially dangerous. It not only has a high mortality rate due to complications resulting from starvation, but people with this condition have shown to be much more likely to attempt or successfully complete suicide. [3,6]

Finding Help for an Eating Disorder

The first step toward finding help is generally admitting there’s a problem and acknowledging that current behavior is unhealthy and unsustainable, even if you may not feel fully ready or able to stop that behavior. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to seek out help.

Getting to a place where you feel willing to speak with a mental health professional is a big step in the recovery process. This allows you to start processing how you feel and receive professional advice on the best next steps.

If you’re not sure where to start and don’t feel comfortable speaking with a physician, therapist, or other trusted medical professionals, you can also utilize a number of different eating disorder hotlines. These programs will allow you to inquire on an anonymous basis and will be able to supply you with information, advice, and other helpful resources.

Finding help for an eating disorder may feel scary or even hopeless, but the important thing to remember is that recovery is possible. Seeking out help is the first step on a recovery journey that can help lead you into a happier and healthier future.


  1. Eating Disorders. (2023, January). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 10, 2023.
  2. Eating Disorder Statistics. ANAD. Retrieved February 10, 2023.
  3. Kohn MR, Golden NH. (2022). Management of the malnourished patient: it’s now time to revise the guidelines. Journal of Eating Disorders; 10(56).
  4. Kelly AC, Carter JC. (2014). Eating disorder subtypes differ in their rates of psychosocial improvement over treatment. Journal of Eating Disorders; 2(2).
  5. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. (2023, January). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 10, 2023.
  6. Sidiropoulos M. (2007). Anorexia nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts. McGill Journal of Medicine; 10(1):20–25.

Last Update | 03 - 20 - 2023

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