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Diet & Nutrition

Types Of Eating Disorders

7 Mins read

Eating disorders are complex and are often tied to mental health disorders. There are various types of eating disorders, not to be confused with disordered eating behaviours. While disordered eating includes everything from eating when you’re bored to an unhealthy amount of late-night snacking, eating disorders are generally considered much more serious. While disordered eating is often an undiagnosed condition, eating disorders such as bulimia are diagnosed as medical conditions that come with everything from special government housing to specialized psychotherapy. 

To a certain extent, it’s healthy to watch your weight, but it’s important to note that eating disorders often begin as disordered or obsessive eating behaviours. 

Often stemming from a very problematic relationship with food, eating disorders can affect everything from a person’s weight or nutritional intake to their mental and physical health.

It’s false that eating disorders occur because people want to lose weight. Although this is the cause for an eating disorder sometimes, other times mental health problems are the underlying issue.

An eating disorder is a type of mental health condition with potentially life-threatening outcomes if the issue isn’t addressed correctly. Treating an eating disorder often requires the intervention of psychological and medical professionals. In many cases, the path to recovery can be long and varied, depending on the nature of the condition.

Many people compare the difficulty of treating eating disorders with the challenge of overcoming a drug addiction. Some eating disorders can be extremely challenging to overcome, especially without professional help.

In the United States, an estimated 10 million men and 20 million women have experienced an eating disorder at some point in their life. Unfortunately, many people still don’t understand why problematic eating occurs, or when it’s time to get professional help.

What Exactly Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a selection of psychological conditions classified by very unhealthy eating habits. Various types of eating disorders begin with a mental health condition, an obsession with food, body image issues, or body dysmorphic disorder

While many people struggle with having a healthy relationship with food, someone who feels guilty after eating an extra slice of pizza won’t necessarily have an eating disorder.

Most of the major types of eating disorders are diagnosed when they have a significant and measurable impact on a person’s behaviour. For instance, if you begin to avoid eating when you’re hungry because you want to lose weight, or you start making yourself vomit after eating, this could be a serious sign that you’re developing an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can affect people of any gender, at any age. However, eating disorders are most commonly reported in young women and adolescents. Approximately 13% of young people report an eating disorder by the age of 20.

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What Causes Eating Disorders to Develop?

It’s difficult to know for certain what might cause the onset of an eating disorder. However, experts believe a variety of factors could be to blame.

Research into the genetics of eating disorders indicates there may be a greater chance of experiencing an eating disorder if members of your family had similar issues. Twin and adoption studies involving twins separated at birth and adopted by different families found if one twin develops an eating disorder, the other has a 50% chance of developing one as well.

Personality traits can also increase the risk of eating disorders. Personality characteristics such as neuroticism, impulsivity, and perfectionism are linked to a higher rate of eating disorders.

Notably, certain eating disorders appear almost non-existent in cultures that haven’t been exposed to Western ideals of body shape. This proves that the media we consume (and the body image ideals on the internet) can contribute to problematic eating.

Some experts also indicate differences in brain structure and biology might have something to do with the development of eating disorders. In particular, levels of the brain’s dopamine and serotonin are common factors in succumbing to eating disorders.

What are the Types of Eating Disorders?

There are various different types of eating disorders, often defined by the behaviours displayed by people suffering from these conditions. The most common types of eating disorders are as follows:

1.   Anorexia Nervosa 

Anorexia Nervosa is the most well-known eating disorder among most cultures. The condition frequently develops during young adulthood and adolescence and affects more women than men. People with anorexia have a disproportionate view of their body and weight. They may see themselves as being overweight even when they’re dangerously slim.

Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Being significantly underweight compared to people of a similar age and height
  • Restricting what you eat an obsessive level, or counting calories
  • An intense fear of gaining weight and the use of behaviors to avoid gaining weight
  • Relentless pursuit of an ideal body type
  • A distorted self-image and poor self-esteem

People with anorexia frequently struggle with obsessive-compulsive symptoms. For instance, many people with anorexia are preoccupied with constant thoughts about food. There are two sub-categories of anorexia:

  • Restriction: People with this condition attempt to lose weight through excessive exercise, dieting, or fasting (not eating food).
  • Binging: This version of anorexia involves eating food, and “purging” with activities like taking laxatives, vomiting, or exercising excessively

Anorexia can cause serious damage over time, including infertility, brittle hair, and nails, and even thinning of the bones. In severe cases, anorexia can also lead to brain, heart, and multi-organ failure.

2.   Bulimia Nervosa

Another of the most well-known types of disordered eating, Bulimia Nervosa commonly develops in early adolescence and affects women more than men. People with this condition frequently eat large amounts of food in specific time periods – known as “binge eating”.

Binge eating episodes often continue until a person is painfully full. Individuals with bulimia then attempt to “purge” to compensate for the extra calories they consume. This involves taking laxatives, fasting, using enemas, and exercising excessively.

Symptoms are very similar to those of the “binging” subcategory of anorexia. However, individuals with bulimia are more likely to maintain a relatively normal weight. Common symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Recurring episodes of binge eating, or being unable to control eating habits
  • Recurrent episodes of inappropriate vomiting or purging behaviors
  • Self-esteem issues influenced by body weight and shape
  • Fear of gaining weight

Side effects of bulimia are often linked to purging behaviours, such as a sore throat, tooth decay, and acid reflux. In severe cases, bulimia may create electrolyte imbalances which lead to a heart attack or stroke.

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3.   Binge Eating Disorder

Considered one of the most common types of disordered eating behaviours, particularly in the US, binge eating typically occurs during early adulthood and can impact any gender. Individuals with this disorder have similar symptoms to those with the binging subtype of anorexia, or bulimia.

You may eat large amounts of food in short periods of time and feel unable to control your eating habits. However, with binge eating disorders, there’s no desire to restrict calories or purge to compensate for binges. Symptoms associated with this condition include:

  • Eating large amounts of food rapidly, and often in secret until you feel uncomfortable
  • Feeling out of control during episodes of binge eating
  • Feelings of distress, shape, guilt, or disgust when thinking about eating behaviors
  • No use of purging behavior such as calorie restriction of vomiting

Those suffering from binge eating disorders can often suffer from obesity or become overweight. This may increase their chances of medical complications linked to weight, like stroke, diabetes, or heart disease.

4.   Pica

Pica is another form of disordered eating, which involves eating things that aren’t traditionally seen as “food”. People with pica crave non-food substances like chalk, paper, ice, and even soil. Pica can occur in any gender or life stage, but it’s most common in children, pregnant women, and those suffering from mental disorders.

People with pica are at increased risk of infection, poisoning, gut injuries, and nutritional deficiencies. Because you may be tempted to eat dangerous substances, it’s also possible for pica to be fatal.

Notably, to be considered an official case of “pica”, someone eating non-food substances must not see that behaviour as part of their culture or religion.

5.   Avoidant Food Disorder

Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder is a term used to refer to issues of “disturbed eating” due to a lack of interest in food, or a distaste for certain colours, tastes, smells, and textures. Though most common in children, this condition can persist through to adulthood, and influence any gender.

Common symptoms of “ARFID”, include:

  • Eating habits that restrict the ability to eat around others
  • Avoidance or restriction of food intake which may lead to malnutrition
  • Poor development for your height and age, or weight loss
  • Nutrient deficiencies and dependence on supplements

Notably, this condition is not the same as simply being a “picky eater”. People with ARFID feel physically unable to eat in certain conditions.

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6.   Rumination Disorder

A slightly newer form of eating disorder than some of the others, rumination disorder refers to conditions wherein people regurgitate food they have already chewed and swallowed, before consuming it again.

Usually, “rumination” occurs within the first 30 minutes after eating a meal, and it’s a voluntary behaviour, unlike reflux. The disorder may occur during multiple life stages, including infancy, childhood, and adulthood.

If rumination occurs during the early stages of life and is not resolved, it can result in weight loss and malnutrition later in life. Some adults with this disorder restrict the food they eat in public, due to their concerns about their behaviour.

Other Problematic Eating Behaviors

The more researchers learn about human beings’ relationships with foods, the more eating disorders are discovered. Some additional examples of problematic eating include:

  • OSFED (Other specified feeding or eating disorder): A term used to refer to any eating disorder condition not identified in the 6 types above.
  • Night eating syndrome: A desire to eat excessively after waking up in the middle of the night. 
  • Purging disorder: People who use purging behaviors to control their shape or weight, without the binge-eating associated with bulimia or anorexia.
  • Orthorexia: One condition currently under investigation is “orthorexia”. Though frequently mentioned in scientific studies and the media, this condition has yet to be recognized as an official eating disorder. People with this condition have an obsessive focus on healthy eating, to the point where they may attempt to eliminate entire food groups from their diet.

Interestingly, individuals with orthorexia aren’t focused on losing weight. Instead, their self-worth and identity are often dependent on their perception of what they eat.

Understanding Disordered Eating

Eating disorders must be taken very seriously. Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that typically require medical and psychological intervention. Many of the behaviours listed above can be extremely dangerous when left untreated.

If you’re concerned about your risk of developing eating disorders, it could help to get some insight into what your genetics say about your eating habits with CircleDNA. If you or someone close to you has noticed problematic eating behaviours, it’s crucial to speak to your doctor immediately. 

Team CircleDNA
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The editorial team behind CircleMagazine, dedicated to bringing you bite-size health tips, real-life health stories and the latest genetic-related findings at this digital health hub.
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