Understanding Eating Disorders: Symptoms, Risks, and Recovery Pathways

Eating Disorder, as the name suggests, is not just related to unhealthy eating behaviour but is a severe mental health disorder associated with the unusual consumption of food that gives rise to disorders of a person’s physical health and mental health, such as emotional issues.

Eating disorder symptoms are commonly seen in people in their young adulthood, and although it affects people of all ages and genders, the rates are high in females.

Eating disorders were acknowledged by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual(DSM) of mental disorders in the 1980’s. The National Institute of Mental Health has claimed that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate or are life-threatening among other mental health disorders.

If the eating disorder lies with someone longer, it can cause physical problems with the possibility of a reproductive upset, osteoporosis, and harm to the heart and kidneys. An eating disorder is caused by various factors such as psychological, sociocultural and biological factors. pexels polina tankilevitch 6516033

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1. Is an Eating Disorder a Mental Illness? Who is at High Risk?

Eating disorders affect almost 5% of the population, typically in adults and young adulthood. Eating disorders affect all age groups and genders. However, it is commonly detected in teenagers, early 20s, and females.

Genetics and or family history also play a role in undergoing eating disorder complications, for those whose parents or siblings have had an eating disorder are at higher risk of having the disorder.

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2. Symptoms of Eating Disorders

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The symptoms of people with eating disorders include

  1. Extreme weight loss due to unusual eating patterns or habits
  2. Panicking about weight gain any time soon, obsessing over food, calories, diet, and weight
  3. Avoiding meals at their appropriate time
  4. Sickness leading to severe dehydration due to constipation
  5. Cold, abdominal pain, and dullness
  6. Restricting food to even healthier options
  7. Constantly having a check on a weight machine to measure your weight
  8. Binge eating
  9. Performing exercise excessively or compulsive exercise
  10. Missing menstruation or periods

3. Types of Eating Disorders 

  1. Anorexia nervosa
  2. Bulimia nervosa
  3. Binge eating disorder(BED)
  4. Avoidant/ Restrictive food intake disorder(ARFID)
  5. Other specified feeding or eating disorders(OSFED)

3.1) What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which the one suffering from it has this constant concern or fear of health consequences of gaining weight and body image distribution. The ones suffering are unsatisfied with their body shape or proportion, even if they have a faultless body distribution.

They may also weigh themselves perpetually with a constant feeling of being overweight when extremely underweight. They also perform self-starvation and exercise excessively. The ones suffering from anorexia nervosa commit themselves to eating selectively or intense dieting, leading to significant weight loss.

3.1.1. Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

  1. Osteoporosis or thinning of bones
  2. Mild anaemia
  3. Muscle weakness or sickness
  4. Breakable hair and nails
  5. Stale and yellowish skin
  6. Lanugo( growing fine hair all over the body)
  7. Constipation
  8. Low blood pressure
  9. Slow heartbeat and breathing
  10. Drip in body temperature, the sufferer is constantly feeling cold
  11. Lethargy, dullness
  12. Infertility
  13. Multiple organ failure and brain damage
  14. Injury to a heart’s function and structure

 There are also two subtypes of anorexia nervosa known as restrictive and binge-purge.

3.1.2. Restrictive Anorexia Nervosa

Restrictive anorexia nervosa is the sub-type in which an individual rigidly avoids the portion or variety of food they usually consume.

3.1.3. Binge-Purge Anorexia Nervosa

Binge-Purge is another subtype of anorexia nervosa in which the one suffering from it also performs the same extremist behaviour of limiting their food intake along with binge eating, so much so that they perform self-induced vomiting or consume laxatives or diet pills to eliminate the large amount of food that was gulped down.

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Anorexia nervosa eating disorder is life-threatening and has a higher mortality rate than other mental disorders. People suffering from anorexia are at higher risk of dying of starvation compared to other mental disorders. An adult suffering from anorexia has a body mass index under 18.5.

3.2) What is a Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a type of eating disorder in which an individual experiences frequent episodes of consuming food in a large quantity and having no control over their indulgence. They try to compensate for their binge eating by vomiting, excessive exercise, using laxatives, fasting, or a blend of these behaviours to prevent weight gain.

In contrast to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa does not cause an individual to be completely underweight. Those suffering from bulimia nervosa can be overweight or have a naturally healthy weight.

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3.2.1) Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

  1. Pain in the throat due to inflammation
  2. Swollen salivary glands, especially in the neck and jaw region
  3. Dental issues involving enamel erosion, decaying teeth, cavities and sensitivity due to recurring occurrence of stomach acid when vomiting.
  4. Gastrointestinal problems
  5. Malnutrition
  6. Suffering from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse
  7. Cardiovascular complications
  8. Disorder in the menstruation cycle due to hormonal imbalance
  9. Dehydration

Bulimia Eating disorder can be cured like other mental health conditions if someone acknowledges the symptoms and asks for mental health professional help at the right time.

3.3) What is a Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder(BED) is a kind of eating disorder almost similar to that of bulimia nervosa, where individuals indulge in binge eating or unusual eating behaviour that occurs frequently, but the difference in someone dealing with binge eating disorder is that they do not involve in purging or any other combination of behaviours followed by bulimia patients such as excessive exercise, workout routines, or fasting.

Someone dealing with binge eating disorders is either overweight or suffers from obesity as their food intake is generally a substantial amount even if they aren’t hungry.

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3.3.1) Common Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorders

  1. Unusual eating behaviour, eating in large quantities within a few hours, like, 2 hours
  2. Losing control over the consumption of food
  3. Continuously eating even if not hungry
  4. Consuming food by hiding themselves or eating in a corner where no one can see due to feelings of embarrassment or judgment by others over their overeating
  5. Emotional eating disorder that involves overeating to get away with all the negative emotions
  6. Losing interest in their hobbies or activities that they usually love doing daily
  7. Instability in body weight: An individual may either lose weight, acquire weight or may be of average weight
  8. Negative body image: Individuals might have this negative impression of their body image, proportion, or body weight

Binge eating disorders have severe mental and psychological outcomes. It is essential to seek medical help from professionals if someone identifies the symptoms in themselves or others.

Treatment for this eating disorder includes therapy, counselling, support groups, and nutritional instruction to overcome emotional concerns and healthy eating patterns.

3.4) What is an Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder(ARFID)?

Avoidant/ Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), formerly known as a selective eating disorder, is a mental disorder in which people limit their regular food intake or the food they usually eat. This is common in middle-aged children.

The children tend to be fussy eaters and sometimes have no interest in eating, which leads to not developing and growing correctly. When it comes to adults suffering from ARFID, they do not consume sufficient calories to keep up essential body functions.

In contrast to those with anorexia disorder, the one dealing with ARFID does not have distorted body image issues or panic about gaining weight.

Is an Eating Disorder a Mental Illness
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3.4.1) Symptoms of AFRID 

1. Selective Eating.

Ones suffering from AFRID are fussy eaters and picky in terms of their food’s texture, colour, and temperature.

2. Past Unfavorable Experiences

Individuals avoid specific foods or stay away from food belonging to the same group due to sensation issues or unfavourable experiences from the past.

3. Constant Fear

Constantly worrying about vomiting or choking due to food that is being consumed

4. Do not Feel Hungry at all

They do not feel hungry and can live without consuming food for a longer duration or suffer from a loss of appetite.

5. Deficient in Nutrients

Deficiency in nutritional value that impacts growth and development in children and adults.

6 . Weight loss

They have low body weight compared to their counterparts.

7. Low Self Esteem

Psychological factors are affected for someone suffering from AFRID, as it impacts their socializing skills and low self-esteem, or they may also experience anxiety and stress relating to eating, dining out, or any social gatherings. People with AFRID mostly try to avoid food served at gatherings or social events.

There is a difference between someone suffering from AFRID and being a fussy eater, which is common in young people. AFRID is an eating disorder that can be analyzed and treated. A mental health professional can cure this eating disorder if one seeks help at the right time; it can help to improve eating habits.

3.5) What are Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) or Atypical Eating Disorders?

Other specified feeding or eating disorders(OSFED) or atypical eating disorders, formerly known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified(EDNOS), fall under the category of eating disorders, which is very different from common eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders.

This category of eating disorder is for those who do not fulfil the criteria for other types of eating disorders. Still, it can be extremely harmful, with unforgettable misery, just like other eating disorders.

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Someone suffering from OSFED has symptoms that do not fit into any specification like other eating disorders. The sufferers tend to have a wide variety of eating disorders. Some of the examples or sub-types of OSFED are as follows:

a) Atypical Anorexia Nervosa

Atypical anorexia nervosa is a sub-type of OSFED eating disorder that is the same as that of anorexia nervosa in terms of symptoms, which include constant worry about gaining weight or out-of-shape body image, but in this case, individuals maintain an average weight or just above the normal range.

b) Bulimia Nervosa of Low Frequency or Limited Duration

Bulimia Nervosa of Low Frequency or Limited Duration is a sub-type of OSFED in which an individual experiences events of purging and binge eating but not as frequently as bulimia to fit in the category.

c) Night Eating Syndrome

This sub-type of OSFED is related to binge eating, mainly during the night or waking up only to eat food in excess quantity.

d) Purging Disorder

This subtype of OSFED associates people with eating disorders with repeated occurrences of purging behaviours, such as self-induced vomiting and consuming excess laxatives, but the one going through this eating disorder does not experience regular binge eating episodes.

e) Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder

UFED deals with mental health conditions, with distress or impairment caused by unhealthy eating patterns, but the symptoms of UFED do not fulfil the criteria of any other eating disorders.

Someone suffering from OSFED can quickly get away with it, as it does not have as harmful consequences as other eating disorders. Still, someone suffering from this disorder needs to seek help from health professionals to overcome the mild symptoms and prevent them from becoming intense or severe.

4. How Can We Treat Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can be treated by seeking help from a health professional to eliminate the harmful symptoms and avoid some medical complications and dangerous events like suicide and medical complications.

4.1. Treatment of Eating Disorders 

Treatment of eating disorders is possible, and one can get away with the dreadful or mild symptoms if they seek help at the right time or analyze their symptoms to have a clear idea about their disorder and recover completely.

Treatment of eating disorders involves various treatments, medications, therapies, or counselling that are discussed below.

4.1.1. Psychological Treatments

Psychological treatment of eating disorders deals with various psychological therapies available to get rid of eating disorders. People often undergo negative emotions or thoughts while suffering from an eating disorder, which also affects their ideas regarding body image and leads to low self-esteem.


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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) is the most common therapy used to lessen negative thought patterns of an eating disorder sufferer. Other types of psychological treatments, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), and Family-based treatment, are also utilized to eliminate eating disorder symptoms.

4.1.2. Family Therapy

Family therapy deals with the involvement of family members in the treatment of eating disorders, especially in the case of adults suffering from an eating disorder. The involvement of family members plays a crucial role in getting rid of the eating disorders effect, as the warmth of parents participating in the treatment of their loved one helps in speedy recovery.

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4.1.3. Group Therapy

Group Therapy is a treatment for eating disorders that involves consulting a therapist and conducting a gathering of other people with eating disorders. Conducting social meetings can be helpful for people to learn new skills to get rid of symptoms and lessen their isolation behaviour.

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4.1.4. Medical Assessment and Monitoring

Medical assessment and monitoring help identify physical problems due to eating disorders and recognize any medical complications. A health professional can identify signs and monitor those to maintain a healthy weight and tackle other health-related concerns.

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4.1.5. Nutritional Counseling

Getting in touch with a dietician or nutritionist specialized in eating disorders can help people with eating disorders to limit their eating habits and have a balanced diet to lead a healthy life.

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4.1.6. Medication

Seeking prescribed medication for people with eating disorders can be helpful to surpass the effects such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder caused by eating disorders. However, medication is not commonly suggested for eating disorder symptoms and is used simultaneously with other therapies.

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4.1.7. Inpatient or Residential Treatment

This treatment is for those patients who are suffering from severe symptoms of eating disorders and are usually treated under the condition of all-day and all-night supervision and help.

This treatment is especially for those with extreme medical complications and those struggling to participate in treatment.

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4.1.8. Addressing Co-Occurring Disorders

For comprehensive recovery from eating disorders, one has to identify different mental health conditions or co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, or the urge to use a drug that co-occur due to eating disorders and seek help to get away with it.

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5. Other Related Conditions Due to Eating  Disorders

  1. Anxiety Disorders and other Psychiatric disorders
  2. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  3. Substance Abuse
  4. Depression
  5. Body Dysmorphic Disorder

6. Takeaways

Eating disorders are mental health issues that can be fatal. At the same time, they can also be curable, not as rapidly as one expects, but if one goes under the scanner to allow themselves to be open for treatment, it might take several years still, but there is a chance to recover.

Last Updated on December 22, 2023 by