Eating Disorders Latest Facts: Causes, Types, Symptoms and Treatments

An eating disorder may be described as one of those medical conditions that are greatly misunderstood by many. Perhaps, because an increasing number of people are turning up with it, some conclude that it is the result of the lifestyle choices of those affected. But is this always the case?

In this article, we make an attempt to help you understand eating disorders better. What are the factors responsible and how do you prevent them? Read on to learn everything that you ought to know about these illnesses.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a condition that is characterized by abnormal eating habits that can have adverse effects on the health of the individual affected. The irregularities may be in the form of insufficient or excessive food intake. It is considered a mental disorder.

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Eating disorders can present themselves at any point in a person’s life. However, in most cases, they develop during the teen years or early adulthood. They affect both males and females, although the rates differ.

Estimates have it that about 10 million men in America develop an eating disorder at least once during their lifetime. The figure is double for American women.

Eating disorders are treatable. But they can be potentially fatal when left untreated for long. They are often present alongside other disorders.

These illnesses were responsible for roughly 7,000 deaths each year, as of 2010. This made them the most deadly mental disorder.

In the 10-year period to 2009, a surge was recorded in hospitalizations due to eating disorders in the United States. The increase cut across all age groups. This was also a 68 percent rise in the total cost of hospital stays linked to the illnesses.

There are several types of eating disorders. But the most common ones are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

This condition describes an excessive fear of weight gain. As a result, people with anorexia nervosa have a problem with maintaining healthy body weight. They think they are overweight and, so, need to shed pounds, even when their current body weight may be dangerously low. This makes them reduce food consumption.

The popular belief is that anorexia nervosa is the result of vanity or social issue. It is assumed that people with the disorder want to look like, or maybe better than, thin or slim individuals seemingly glorified in the media.

However, researchers now think that there may be more to anorexia nervosa than vanity. They believe genetic or biological factors may also be involved in its occurrence.

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Possible signs and symptoms of this disorder include:

  • Highly restricted eating
  • Extreme fear of gaining weight
  • Loss of skin integrity
  • Bone loss
  • Muscle wasting and weakness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Cessation of menstruation

Anorexia nervosa can cause organ failure and brain damage. It places greater stress on the heart and increases the risk of cardiac complications. Of course, this increases the risk of death.

Little wonder the disorder is the most fatal of all mental conditions. Patients do not only die of starvation; some commit suicide.

In 2011, it was reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry that anorexia was responsible for 5.4 deaths per 1000 people. About 1.3 deaths were due to suicide.

Bulimia Nervosa

This eating disorder involves recurrent and frequent consumption of large amounts of food, followed by compensatory actions. In other words, people with bulimia nervosa indulge in uncontrolled binge eating and follow that with steps to get rid of the food consumed.

Purging is the most common compensatory behavior. This may be in the form of forced or self-induced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives or diuretics. Some people may use fasting or over-exercising to compensate for excessive eating.

This cycle of binge eating and purging usually takes place in secret. Loved ones may not be aware of this problem.

Individuals with this disorder may not be pleased with their body size and shape and may be afraid of weight gain. These people typically have relatively healthier body weight, compared to those with anorexia.

Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Intestinal distress
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Tooth decay

The resulting imbalance in minerals, such as potassium, calcium, and sodium, can give rise to heart problems and stroke.

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Binge Eating Disorder

As the name suggests, binge eating disorder involves excessive eating. A person with this condition loses the ability to control his or her food intake. This makes them more likely to become overweight or obese.

Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia nervosa mainly in terms of compensatory behaviors. There is no immediate attempt to get rid of the high amounts of food consumed.

People with the disorder often experience a feeling of guilt following excessive food consumption.

You may suspect this disorder if you binge eat at least one time per week for more than three months. According to the National Institute of mental Health (NIMH), this is the most common form of eating disorder in the U.S. It cuts across all age groups and socioeconomic classes.

Some signs of binge eating disorder are:

  • Consumption of unusually large amounts of food
  • Fear of eating where others are present to avoid embarrassment
  • Eating when you are not hungry
  • Eating to the point of feeling discomfort from being excessively full
  • Feeling of guilt about your eating habits

Other Eating Disorders

Although the foregoing is the most common, there are several other forms of these illnesses. They include:

Muscle dysmorphia – This arises out of an extreme preoccupation with muscle appearance. The disorder affects males the most. Affected individuals think they are too lean, too skinny, or less muscular. This may cause them to increase their food intake unreasonably.

Orthorexia Nervosa – This is a term credited to Steven Bratman. It is a condition characterized by an obsession with healthy foods. People with orthorexia Nervosa avoid all unhealthy foods to the extent of this having undesired effects on them.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) – This is an eating disorder that does not meet the full criteria for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, as stipulated in the mental disorder manual DSM-5. An example is atypical anorexia nervosa, which meets all criteria for anorexia nervosa, except being medically underweight.

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What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders do not really have specific causes. They are complex conditions that may result from a variety of factors. Biological, psychological, and environmental factors can all play a role in the occurrence of these illnesses. Let’s consider some of them.


Environmental, psychological, and socio-cultural factors were thought to be mainly responsible for eating disorders in the past. But new research shows that these conditions do run in the family.

Some researchers have found that the genes of a person may make them susceptible to eating disorders due to Mendelian inheritance. It is estimated that a person who has a first-degree relative with an eating disorder is at up to 12 times greater risk of having the same.

Biochemical imbalance

It has been observed that eating disorders do result from irregularities in the production or transmission of certain natural substances in the body. These include hormones, neurotransmitters, or amino acids such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Personality traits

Researchers have observed certain personality traits may contribute to the development of eating disorders. These are typically seen during childhood. Other influences and factors a person gets exposed to during adolescence combine with these traits to produce possibly harmful effects.

Personality traits intensified by these other factors can lead to disordered mentalization. They impact a person’s sense of body image and self. Eating disorders may develop as a result of these effects.

Profession or Sports

People who participate in some kinds of sports are expected to have a particular body shape. They include ballet dancers, gymnasts, long-distance runners, and wrestlers. The respective sports influence diets and may predispose a person to develop eating disorders.

Child abuse

Individuals who were maltreated or abused as children are at a higher risk of eating disorders, according to research. The abuse in question includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse as well as neglect. Some researchers found that this increases the risk by about three times.

There are several other factors that may encourage eating disorders. Among these are nutritional deficiencies, peer pressure, and social isolation.

The conditions may also be present alongside other disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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Eating Disorder Diagnosis

Examination of medical history is a very crucial part of the proper diagnosis of eating disorders. Some experts think this to be the most powerful tool for diagnosis.

A number of other medical disorders do present symptoms similar to those of eating disorders. Therefore, your doctor will need to first rule out those other conditions.

Neuroimaging, involving MRI, PET, and fMRI scans, has been used for diagnosing these illnesses. It can be used to detect cases in which organic causes, such as lesions or tumors, play a role in eating disorders. Research shows that neuroimaging can be very helpful for diagnosing anorexia nervosa at an early stage.

There are also a number of tests or evaluations that your doctor may order to investigate psychological factors that play a role in eating disorders. These include the Eating Attitudes Test, Body Attitudes Test, Eating Disorder Inventory, and Eating Disorder Examination Interview.

Treatment of Eating Disorders

There are different options available for the treatment of eating disorders. However, just one of these may not be enough in dealing with the conditions. Treatment typically involves more than one of these options for improved results. The extent of each case will also determine the right steps to take in dealing with it.

According to the recommendation of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a team approach should be used in the treatment of mental disorders. Ideal members of such a team include a psychiatrist, a therapist, and a registered dietitian.

As for the treatment methods, they include the following:


Psychotherapies are very important tools in the treatment of eating disorders. There are different forms, including individual, group, and family therapies. These can help greatly in dealing with the underlying causes of these illnesses, such as past traumas.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially popular. This is based on the idea that eating disorders are the result of patients’ thought patterns rather than external stimuli. It, therefore, seeks to alter how a patient views and reacts to situations.

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Medical care and monitoring

Typically, your doctor will also take steps to deal with health issues that may have developed from an eating disorder. Medical care will be useful in dealing with other disorders that have either caused or resulted from these conditions.

Medications For Eating Disorders

Certain drugs may be beneficial in treating eating disorders. These take aim at underlying factors that can produce an impact on a person’s eating habits. Some of the medications help to resolve mood or anxiety symptoms.

Evidence suggests that antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or antipsychotics approved by the FDA can be useful. It has also been found that zinc supplements may be of value.

Nutrition counseling

A counselor can help patients with normal eating by providing guidance. Such an expert will provide a guide on what to eat and how to stabilize or restore weight.

A related treatment approach is medical nutrition therapy. This relies on customized diets created and monitored by a physician or a registered dietitian for the treatment of medical conditions and associated symptoms.

Among the other treatment options available for eating disorders are:

  • Music therapy
  • Guided self-help
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Art therapy

You may find it rather costly to treat an eating disorder. And there is insufficient evidence on how cost-effective the different options are.

The effectiveness of treatment approaches may also not be the same across all ages. For instance, there are no well-established treatments for most eating disorders in children. Only anorexia has one, and that is family-based therapy.

What is the Recovery Rate Like?

Some patients can overcome an eating disorder within months of starting treatment. But for some others, these are illnesses they will have to deal with for a long time, possibly a lifetime.

Evidence shows that most people with eating disorders experience full recovery after being treated. The rates range from 50 percent to 85 percent for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder in studies.

Researchers have observed that the greater proportions of patients experience at least partial remission.

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Is There Anything You Can Do to Guard Against Eating Disorders?

It is obviously better to prevent an eating disorder than to be seeking effective treatment. This is more so when you consider the costly nature of some treatment methods. Plus, there is no total guarantee of full recovery.

So what do you do to guard against eating disorders?

The best approach to preventing these illnesses is arguably taking steps to guard against influences that can encourage them. The focal point should be on socio-cultural influences, especially as regards body image. It is believed that children as young as five are not even immune to these influences.

People should learn to listen to and respect their bodies. This essentially means that effort should be made to eat as the body demands. You eat when you are hungry and stop when full. Children should also be taught this.

And talking about eating, a healthy diet will be very important.

Increasing your level of activity will also help. You should avoid sitting for long durations at a time, especially when you are alone. A sedentary lifestyle has the potential to encourage improper eating. By making efforts to stay active, you may be able to prevent bulimia or binge eating disorder in particular.

It is important to avoid body shaming or body talk. Even when no harm is intended, discussing a person’s body may have certain effects on them that are not planned.

Final Thoughts

Eating disorders are complex conditions – many factors come into play in their occurrence. The popularly held view that they are strictly the costs of lifestyle choices is wrong. Researchers now know that a person’s genes can predispose them to these conditions as well.

Thankfully, there are many methods available for treatment. The particular approach to adopt will depend on the severity of the condition. If treated early, you have a greater chance of full recovery from an eating disorder.

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