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Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating to improve health is a positive change, but sometimes, focusing on food and controlling body weight reaches extreme levels. Seek help if you or someone you love has become obsessed with food, restricted eating, or excessive overeating.

Types of Eating Disorders

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recognizes four main eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

While all four involve eating patterns that can lead to life-threatening results, each has unique practices and characteristics. Anorexia nervosa is marked by self-inflicted starvation that leads to concerning weight loss. Bulimia nervosa involves binging on large amounts of food and then purging in some way, such as by self-induced vomiting. Binge eating disorder involves binging on large amounts of food, but there is no purging component, which can result in excessive weight gain and obesity-related diseases. Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is characterized by an extreme avoidance or restriction of certain foods or food groups, often leading to significant weight loss or nutritional deficiency, and is not driven by concerns about body weight or shape.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

It’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders so you can identify when healthy habits and weight loss have gone too far. Both anorexia and bulimia can include a strict exercise routine, along with a withdrawal from family and friends. Additional signs of anorexia include inadequate food intake, an obsession with body weight, and an extreme concern over specific components of food, like calories or fat grams. Being fat is a common complaint, and all these practices persist despite reaching a healthy weight. Over time, severe food restrictions and excessive exercise lead to a dangerously low body weight.

With bulimia, large amounts of food are consumed at once, and frequent trips to the bathroom may follow eating. In addition to vomiting, other forms of purging can include the use of laxatives or diuretics. Major concerns over weight loss and food control become evident, and the binge and purge cycle becomes a ritual that disrupts normal daily life.

Binge eating disorder also involves eating large amounts of food and is associated with feelings of being out of control. Eating is associated with shame or guilt. Those affected eat until they feel discomfort and often eat when they are not hungry.

Warning signs of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) may include extreme pickiness or selectivity regarding food choices, refusal to eat certain foods or entire food groups based on sensory characteristics (such as texture, taste, or smell), significant weight loss or failure to gain weight in children, nutritional deficiencies, anxiety related to eating (e.g., fear of vomiting), and refusal to eat with others.

Ways to Help

Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age or gender. These disorders have many underlying issues that can vary by person, which makes them challenging to treat. It’s often difficult for a person suffering from a disorder to see the need to get help. As a friend or loved one, it’s important that your concern be expressed in a loving way and that you remain supportive. It’s also important to take action as soon as you notice that there could be a problem. The longer eating disorders persist, the more dangerous they become. Once medical tests are conducted to diagnose the disorder, a treatment path can be outlined to help patients return to better emotional and physical health.

Additional Reading from NEDA


Lori Rice, M.S., is a nutritional scientist and author with a passion for healthy cooking, exercise physiology, and food photography.
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