People with eating disorders typically have a difficult relationship with food and body image.
There are several types of eating disorders, each involving different symptoms. Anyone can have an eating disorder, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and other demographics.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders affect at least 9% of the world’s population. Eating disorders affect mental and physical health. They can be life threatening if left untreated.
Learning more about eating disorders can be an essential first step in figuring out the right treatment options and support for you or someone you know.
Each eating disorder has its own set of symptoms, but many people will have a combo of eating disorder symptoms. Your condition and how it affects you will be unique to you.
Eating disorders can affect your physical and mental health. They can also have a big influence on your behaviors.
Common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is marked by restricting how much food you eat.
- Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia involves a cycle of bingeing and purging, where someone eats a lot of food and then uses some method to get rid of it.
- Binge eating disorder (BED). People with BED eat large amounts of food and feel out of control, as if they can’t stop eating.
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). In ARFID, people restrict the amount and type of food they eat, but don’t feel distress about their weight or body image.
- Pica. This eating disorder involves someone eating things that aren’t food, like dirt or paint.
- Rumination disorder. People with this condition regurgitate their food by rechewing, reswallowing, or spitting it out over a period of 1 month.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). This diagnosis is given when someone has symptoms of eating disorders but doesn’t meet the criteria for one of the eating disorders above.
People with eating disorders tend to be preoccupied by or unable to stop thinking about food, weight, and body image. This can take a significant emotional and mental toll.
Some psychological symptoms of an eating disorder include:
- often thinking about food, weight, and body image
- feeling anxious, irritable, guilty, or ashamed
- feeling “flat” or a lack of emotions
- changing mood
- body image distortion, such as believing you appear larger than you really are
Eating disorders can significantly impact your physical health. Drastic changes in eating, purging, and other behaviors can affect your health and body.
Physical symptoms of eating disorders may include:
- changes in weight — either up, down, or fluctuating
- feeling cold all the time
- hair loss
- dizziness, fainting, or feeling lightheaded
- swelling around your jaw area, a sign of continued vomiting
- stained or discolored teeth and tooth decay from vomiting
- stomach problems, like constipation, cramps, or pain
- dehydration and nutritional deficiencies
While eating disorders can cause these physical symptoms, along with others, not everyone will have them. Eating disorders and their effects look different from person to person.
Certain behaviors are common in people living with eating disorders. People are often secretive about their behaviors around food and body image. These behaviors can make people feel increasingly isolated or guilty.
Behavioral symptoms can include:
- wearing baggy clothes or many layers of clothing
- frequently eating alone and avoiding meals with other people or in public
- constant dieting
- rigid thinking about food, body image, or weight, such as thinking of certain foods as either good or bad
- isolating from other people
Experts are still trying to understand what exactly causes eating disorders. It’s important to note that eating disorders aren’t a simple “vanity” issue, but a complicated mental health condition.
Many people use eating disorder behaviors to cope with distressing emotions and experiences.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), some contributing factors can increase a person’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder:
- Genetics. Having a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions can raise someone’s chances of developing an eating disorder.
- Environmental factors. Growing up in a culture that equates a certain body type with success or happiness can place pressure on people to meet unrealistic standards.
- Psychological factors. People who are unhappy with how they look or deal with perfectionism may have a higher risk. Having a mental health condition, like anxiety, can also increase someone’s risk.
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll have an eating disorder.
If you think you may have an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help. Eating disorders can be distressing, uncomfortable, and in some cases, life threatening.
A healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, refer you to an eating disorder specialist, and suggest treatment options that are best for you.
Treatment options for eating disorders will vary from person to person, but typically include:
- talk therapy, aka psychotherapy
- medication to treat coexisting conditions
- working with a nutritionist
In therapy, you can work your therapist to address underlying reasons for your eating disorder. A therapist can also support any feelings that come up as you recover.
While there aren’t specific medications prescribed for eating disorders, meds can help you manage some physical symptoms of eating disorders like constipation. Takings meds may also help with other mental health conditions or symptoms you have, such as depression or anxiety.
Meeting with a nutritionist, in addition to therapy, can help you challenge rigid thoughts around food, body, and weight. They can provide accurate nutritional information to support your recovery. Nutritionists can also create a meal plan that supports your nutritional needs.
You may want to specifically look for a nutritionist who has specializes or has experience with eating disorders.
Some people also receive outpatient treatment, meaning they live at home while working with a treatment team. Others need more intensive care, which sometimes means receiving treatment in a hospital or residential facility (aka inpatient treatment).
Your level of treatment will depend on what kind of support you need in your eating disorder recovery.
Meeting a medical professional isn’t possible for everyone. This quiz can help you figure out if your experiences could be connected to an eating disorder. However, only a medical professional can provide an accurate diagnosis.
Managing life with an eating disorder has its challenges, even with a treatment team and strong support system. With the right coping tools, you can manage even better.
If you’re living with an eating disorder, it can be helpful to:
- Practice self-care. Do things you like such as watching TV or playing with your pet. Self-care — whatever that looks like for you — can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Talk to others about you’re going through. Talking to trusted, supportive people about your eating disorder can better allow them to support you. This might be a close friend, family member, or someone in a support group. Reaching out can help you feel less alone and isolated.
- Celebrate your recovery. Reward yourself for any progress you make in recovery. Eating disorder recovery can be hard, so celebrate yourself.
If you think someone you know has an eating disorder, there are several ways you can talk to them about it and encourage them to get help.
Many people with eating disorders don’t seek out treatment on their own. They may feel anxious or ashamed about getting help. They sometimes may not even realize their behavior is harmful.
Speaking with a loved one about your concerns can be difficult. Before approaching them, it can be helpful to:
- Educate yourself on eating disorders. Learn accurate information to help you talk with your loved one.
- Avoid oversimplified solutions. Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t about “willpower.” It’s not supportive to tell your loved one to “stop bingeing” or “just eat.”
- Avoid judgement. Tell your loved one that having an eating disorder isn’t something to be ashamed of. Remind them that recovery is possible.
Helping someone who you think has an eating disorder can be challenging, especially if they’re resistant. You can use this guide from NEDA to learn more about being supportive.
Whether you’re living with an eating disorder or know someone who is, you’re not alone. Eating disorders are common, treatable mental health conditions.
Living with an eating disorder is not shameful and recovery is possible.
If you think you have an eating disorder or are worried about your feelings surrounding food and body image, finding support is essential for your physical and mental well-being.