What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious, complex, mental health issue that one’s affects emotional and physical health. People with eating disorders develop an unhealthy relationships with food, their weight or appearance. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are all types of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are treatable. People with untreated eating disorders may develop life-threatening problems.

How common are eating disorders?

Approximately 20 million girls and women and 10 million boys and men in America have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are caused by several complex factors including genetics, brain biology, personality, cultural and social ideals and mental health issues.

What are the types of eating disorders?

There are different types of eating disorders. Some people may have more than one type of eating disorder. Types include:

  • Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia nervosa greatly restrict food and calories sometimes to the point of self-starvation. You can have anorexia at any body size. It is characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight and a refusal to eat healthy amounts of food for your body type and activity level.
  • Bulimia nervosa: People diagnosed with bulimia nervosa binge or eat, or perceive they ate, large amounts of food over a short time. Afterward, they may force themselves to purge the calories in some way such as vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively to rid their body of the food and calories.
  • Binge eating disorder (BED): Binge eating disorder is characterized by a person experiencing a loss of control over their eating. They eat, or perceive that they have eaten, large amounts of food in a short period of time. However, after binging they don’t purge food or burn off calories with exercise. Instead, they feel uncomfortably full and may struggle with shame, regret, guilt or depression.

Who is at risk for eating disorders?

Eating disorders can develop at any age. They affect all genders, races and ethnicities. It’s a myth that eating disorders mostly affect girls and women. Boys and men are equally at risk. Certain factors may make you more prone to developing an eating disorder, such as:

  • Family history of eating disorders, addiction, or other mental health issues, such as depression.
  • A history of trauma (physical, emotional or sexual).
  • Personal history of anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • History of dieting.

Other factors include:

  • Diabetes (up to one-fourth of women with Type 1 diabetes develop an eating disorder).
  • Involvement in activities that focus on a slender appearance, such as modeling, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and running.
  • Major life changes, such as starting a new school or job, a divorce or a move.
  • Perfectionistic tendencies.

What causes eating disorders?

A mix of genetics, environment and social factors play a role in the development of eating disorders. Some people with eating disorders may use extreme measures to control food when they feel like other aspects of their lives are out of control. An obsession with food becomes an unhealthy way of coping with painful emotions or feelings. Thus, eating disorders are more about finding healthy way to manage your emotions than about food.

What are the symptoms of eating disorders?

You can’t always tell by someone’s appearance that they have an eating disorder. You can have an eating disorder at any body weight or size. Eating disorders often impact the way people think about food or relate to it, which is not reflected in their weight or size.

Specific symptoms of eating disorders vary by type. It may be difficult to spot an eating disorder as it often mimics dieting. Or, a person struggling with an eating disorder may be reluctant to share their eating concerns. If you or a loved one has an eating disorder, you may notice these general changes:

  • Mood swings.
  • Fatigue, fainting or dizziness.
  • Thinning hair or hair loss.
  • Frequent bathroom breaks after eating.
  • Unexplained weight changes or drastic weight loss.
  • Unusual sweating or hot flashes.

Other changes could include:

  • Solo dining or not wanting to eat with other people.
  • Withdrawing from friends or social activities.
  • Hiding food or throwing it away.
  • Fixation on food, calories, exercise or weight loss.
  • Food rituals (chewing food longer than necessary, eating in secret).

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/07/2020.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. What Are Eating Disorders? Accessed 10/21/2020.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. Eating Disorders. Accessed 10/21/2020.
  • National Eating Disorders Association. What Are Eating Disorders? Accessed 10/21/2020.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders. Accessed 10/20/2020.
  • Rome ES, Strandjord SE. Eating Disorders. Pediatrics in Review 2016;37(8);323-336.
  • Dickstein LP. Franco KN, Rome ES, Auron M. Recognizing, managing medical consequences of eating disorders in primary care. Cleve Clinic J Med 2014;81(4):255-263.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy