Table of Contents
Understanding Eating Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options


The Basics of Eating Disorders

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are medical illnesses. They may have both physical and mental health aspects. Most eating disorders fall into one of three main categories.

  • Anorexia nervosa. Individuals with this disorder severely restrict how much food they take in. They may feel they are overweight even when they are well below healthy weight recommendations. People with anorexia nervosa may restrict how much food they take in by simply not eating; they may also restrict consumption by throwing up what they eat or using laxatives and diuretics to reduce how long food stays in the body.
  • Bulimia nervosa. Individuals with this disorder aren’t able to fully control how much they eat, which leads to binging large quantities of food in short periods of time. To make up for the binge, the person engages in compensatory activities. Those can include obsessive exercising, use of diuretics or laxatives, fasting, or forced vomiting.
  • Binge-eating disorder. Individuals with this disorder binge large quantities of food, as with bulimia nervosa. But they don’t follow binging with compensatory activity such as vomiting or excessive exercise.

If left untreated, eating disorders can lead to severe physical health issues that include organ failure, brain damage, loss of bone mass, and cardiovascular damage.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

According to the NIMH, the exact cause of eating disorders is not 100% clear. However, numerous factors can put someone at increased risk, including:

  • Genetics and environment. If someone in your immediate family struggles with eating disorders, you may be at greater risk. In fact, around 50 to 80% of the risk for some eating disorders is genetic.
  • Biology and health. Some biological factors may increase a person’s risk.
  • Psychological. Mental health and a person’s perception of health plays a critical role in the development of eating disorders.
  • Social factors. Pressures to look and act a certain way can cause people to begin to engage in unhealthy eating habits that can put them at risk for an eating disorder.

Eating Disorders by the Numbers

Eating disorders are often secretive in nature. People binge eat when others aren’t looking or slip into the restroom to throw up in secret. Someone caught in this struggle can feel isolated and alone, but it’s important to realize that you’re not alone if you’re dealing with these issues. Consider some of the facts and statistics about eating disorders below.

  • Close to 1% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa, and more than 1.5% suffer from bulimia nervosa.
  • Almost 3% of Americans have dealt with or are dealing with a binge-eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders don’t just impact young people; among women age 50 and older, 13% have engaged in behaviors related to eating disorders within their lifetimes.

If you’re dealing with eating disorders, getting help as soon as possible can improve your chances of long-term positive outcomes in the future. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 20% of anorexia deaths are a result of suicide. As many as half of eating disorder patients also deal with other diagnoses, including mood disorders or depression. In short, eating disorders can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health if left untreated.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

The symptoms of eating disorders depend on which type of disorder you’re dealing with, but they include behavioral and physical signs. If you or a loved one have any of the following signs, it may be time to speak with a medical professional.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

  • Eating extremely small amounts of food or not eating at all
  • Being severely underweight
  • An overriding fear of gaining any weight, even when it would be healthy to do so
  • Obsession with weight, size, and measurements
  • Excessive exercise
  • Vomiting after eating
  • Use of laxatives or diuretics after eating
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Physical signs, including dry or yellow skin, brittle nails or hair, low blood pressure, slow pulse, and severe constipation

Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

  • Binge eating (which goes beyond simply overeating at one meal or during a holiday feast)
  • Purging, or throwing up after overeating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Using laxatives or other methods to rid the body of food after binge eating
  • Swelling in the area around the jaw or neck
  • A throat that is always sore or chronic infections of the throat
  • Dehydration
  • Gastrointestinal issues, including acid reflux
  • Unhealthy or decayed teeth
  • Digestive problems
  • An imbalance of critical minerals in the body, including potassium, sodium, and calcium

Signs and Symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder

  • Eating large amounts of food, typically in short time periods
  • Eating very quickly when binging
  • Hiding eating
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Being significantly overweight

Treatment for Eating Disorders

The right treatment for an eating disorder depends on factors that are unique to the situation, so it’s important to seek guidance from medical professionals. Some options for treatment include:

  • Medical care, in cases where the eating disorder has caused physical health complications or someone has become malnourished and requires emergency medical care to ensure proper nutrition
  • Medication to treat co-occurring issues, such as depression or anxiety, which might be contributing to an eating disorder
  • Psychotherapy in an inpatient or outpatient environment to help individuals understand the triggers behind an eating disorder and develop healthier coping skills to ward off negative thoughts and behaviors
  • Nutrition counseling to help someone understand what healthy eating and nutrition looks like and how to reach and maintain a healthy weight

Depending on the severity of an eating disorder and what mental and physical health complications are present, treatment might begin in an inpatient or outpatient setting.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

  • offers a short overview of eating disorders with links and phone numbers for hotlines where you can get help.
  • The NIMH offers a free download about eating disorders that includes links and phone numbers for agencies that provide additional help and information.
  • The NIMH also offers a free video series you can access online that addresses common myths about eating disorders.
  • If you’re interested in taking part in clinical trials for the treatment of eating disorders, the U.S. National Library of Medicine offers a searchable list.

This guide is intended as an informational resource only. It’s not intended to provide medical advice or treatment recommendations regarding eating disorders. If you believe you or someone you love is dealing with an eating disorder, please talk to your doctor or another medical professional for assistance in understanding your treatment options and what help you may need.