What is an Eating Disorder?

Updated: Oct 21

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, more than 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders), and UFED (Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder), among others. An eating disorder is much more than just being on a diet or wanting to lose a few pounds, and can affect people of any age, gender, or background. Most eating disorders are categorized as a mental health illnesses that involve marked disturbances in a person's eating and dieting behaviors. If left untreated, eating disorders can have dangerous and even life-threatening consequences.

If you or a loved one are in an eating disorder crisis and need help immediately, do not wait. Call or text the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at:

Call 1-800-931-2237

Text “NEDA” to 741-741

Visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline for more information

You may have a feeling that you, your child, or a loved one have an eating disorder.

This article will help you learn more about:

What is an Eating Disorder?

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

What are Signs of an Eating Disorder?

How Do You Get Help for an Eating Disorder?


What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are classified as a mental health illness, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Eating disorders cause an individual to have a distorted view of their body image and relationship with food. Individuals with eating disorders often obsess over their weight and dieting, which can lead to unhealthy and dangerous behaviors.

There are a few main types of eating disorders:

  • anorexia nervosa

  • bulimia nervosa

  • binge eating disorder

  • ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)

  • OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders)

  • UFED (Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder), among others.

While the signs, symptoms, behaviors, and presentation of the types of eating disorders can greatly vary, each type of eating disorder can have serious consequences on an individual's physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Some eating disorders are characterized as the restricting type, in which individuals lose weight primarily by dieting, fasting or excessively exercising. Others are characterized by binge-eating/purging type in which persons engage in intermittent binge eating and/or purging behaviors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to get help from a professional. Treatment involves physician-supervised care that may include nutrition therapy, psychotherapy, medication management, and support groups. Don't suffer in silence-seek help today.

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

The causes of eating disorders are multifactorial, including but not limited to:

  • biological/genetic - a family history of an eating disorder is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder

  • psychological (anxiety/depression, poor body image and/or self-esteem)

  • perfectionism

  • societal norms and values

  • familial relations and influences

  • history of physical or sexual abuse

Thus, it can be difficult to prevent eating disorders at the population level because the causes greatly vary from individual-to-individual. In the majority of cases, whether you or your loved one have an eating disorder, an eating disorder is not your fault.

Eating disorders may develop in response to a trigger, such as a major life event or change (like starting college or a parents' divorce) or a traumatic experience (like sexual abuse). But sometimes, there is no obvious trigger for why an Eating Disorder develops. Teens are especially vulnerable to developing an eating disorder because of the pressure they face to conform to variety of societal standards and norms. About 85% of all cases of eating disorders begin during adolescence. It is important to recognize signs of an eating disorder early so that the affected individual can receive help promptly before the eating disorder worsens.

What are Signs of an Eating Disorder?

Warning signs of an eating disorder vary from person to person. This post provides examples of a few common signs, but many people will have different or additional symptoms. A key distinguishing of an eating disorder from disordered eating is the presence of body image disturbance and/or fear of weight gain. Please seek professional help immediately if you feel that you or a loved one have an eating disorder.

Examples of Eating Disorder warning signs, symptoms, and behaviors include (but are not limited to):

  • Suddenly disinterested in food or eating meals; often has excuses (such as trying a new diet or prefers to eat alone in their room)

  • Obsession with body weight and/or body size

  • Changes in clothes - may be wearing baggier or looser clothing

  • Frequent body checking (looking in mirror) and/or stepping on scale

  • On-and-off dieting (yo-yo dieting)

  • Weight affects the way a person feels about themselves

  • Feeling scared of weight gain if dieting behaviors stop

  • History of chronic weight fluctuations (weight goes up-and-down)

  • Strict dieting that restricts one or more food groups

  • Having foods that were once liked but aren't eaten anymore

  • Prolonged fasting (fasting that is too long in duration and/or skipping meals)

  • Obsessive thoughts about food, body weight, and/or body shape

  • Overexercise or exercising "to burn off" what you ate

  • Unhealthy focus on eating and/or exercising

  • Anxiety associated with food, eating, and/or meals

  • Dieting that interferes with socialization and social gatherings

  • Refusing to let others prepare their food

  • Reluctant or refusal to eat at restaurants or take-out

  • Feeling out-of-control around food

  • Feelings of guilt and shame after eating certain foods

  • Binge eating episodes

  • Having trouble keeping food down

  • Eating is affecting work/school/social life/family

  • and more

​If any of this sounds familiar to you or for a loved one you know, then it's important for you to reach out for help.

If you would like additional information, there are several online screening quizzes. Please note that these screeners do not replace the need to seek medical help.

How Do You Get Help for an Eating Disorder?

If you think you or someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder, don't hesitate to reach out for help. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can have a negative impact on physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life.

Remember, you are not alone—help is available. There are many resources available to help those struggling with eating disorders.

If you or a loved one are in an eating disorder crisis and need help immediately, do not wait. Call or text the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at:

Call 1-800-931-2237

Text “NEDA” to 741-741

Helplines can provide information about treatment options and support resources in your area.

If not a current emergency, here are a few other resources to help you:

1. Talk to your doctor: Your primary care physician can provide referrals to specialists and mental health professionals. They can also offer guidance on how to best support your loved one during treatment.

2. Seek out individual counseling and nutrition therapy: A medical care team that consists of a counselor/therapist (psychotherapy) plus registered dietitian nutritionist can be an effective way to address the underlying issues that contribute to eating disorder and disordered eating behaviors.

Contact an eating disorder center: Many cities have specialized eating disorder diagnosis, treatment, and recovery centers.

3. Look for online support groups: There are many online support groups available for those struggling with eating disorders and for those taking care of someone with an eating disorder. These groups can be a great way to connect with others who understand what you’re going through.

Identifying and acknowledging the presence of an eating disorder among you or a loved one is the first step. Getting professional help for an eating disorder is essential for recovery. There are many resources available to help those struggling with these illnesses. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out for help today - do not wait. Early intervention is essential for eating disorder recovery.

At From the Start Nutrition, we provide virtual and home-based screening, consultations, and nutrition therapy for eating disorders. Get in touch today.


Thanks for Visiting My Blog!

Hey there! I'm so glad you stopped by my blog! I'm Beth Conlon, a registered dietitian and mom of 3. I'm on a mission to help children, adolescents, and adults overcome feeding and/or eating issues (eating disorders, disordered eating, picky eating, and other feeding issues) so that they can achieve good nutrition, reclaim mealtimes, and develop a positive relationship with food and body.

If you want to learn more about my 1:1 and group services, or consulting opportunities (including writing, speaking, and research), get in touch! Contact | Welcome to FTSN!

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