Having an eating disorder is about more than just unhealthy eating habits. Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that should be treated with medical and psychological intervention. Recent surveys show that over 10 million males and 20 million females in America alone have been diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
The American Psychological Association (2013) has identified 4 major types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
1. Anorexia Nervosa
The most well-known of all eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is characterized by an unrealistic perception of one’s body image and an extreme fear of gaining weight that leads to prolonged self-starvation. People who fall victim to anorexia almost completely stop eating, and as a result, suffer dramatic weight loss. They’re convinced that they’re fat even when they’re already dangerously thin and will do anything to avoid gaining weight.
Anorexia is most common among adolescent girls, usually aged 13-18 years. It’s estimated to affect over 3.7% of all women all over the world, and over 1/3 of those suffering from it die of starvation and malnourishment. In fact, the American Psychological Association (2013) found that anorexia had the highest mortality rate among all other psychiatric conditions and mental illnesses.
Similar to anorexia, bulimia involves a fear of gaining weight and preoccupation with staying thin. However, it’s more difficult to spot someone with bulimia because they are usually able to maintain a healthy body weight. People who are bulimic don’t starve themselves to stay thin, but rather, purge themselves of what they eat afterwards. They might do this by forcing themselves to vomit, taking laxatives and diuretics, or maintaining a rigid and excessive exercise regimen.
Other symptoms of bulimia (that are usually side-effects of their purging behaviors) include: enamel erosion, cavities, tooth decay and discoloration, a sore throat, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. Like anorexia, bulimia tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood (usually at 10-15 years old) and is more common among women than men. It affects over 1.1-4.25% of the global female population, making it the most prevalent eating disorder.
3. Binge Eating Disorder
Next is binge eating disorder (BED), which is marked by recurrent episodes of uncontrollable overeating. It is associated with a loss of self-control when eating, feelings of shame and guilt, and a perceived inability to stop. What differentiates BED from other eating disorders is the lack of purging behaviors and diet restrictions, which is why those who struggle with it often end up obese.
Binge eating disorder is also more common in males than in females, and it typically emerges in early to late adulthood. Recent surveys show that over 2.85 of all American adults will experience BED during their lifetime, and 5.2% of those diagnosed with it die from health complications due to being overweight.
4. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Previously known as “infancy feeding disorder” and “selective intake disorder”, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)is an eating disorder that involves restrictive eating and is most commonly diagnosed in young children (from the ages of 6-12). Unlike anorexia, however, people with ARFID avoid eating certain foods not because they’re conscious of their weight, but because they dislike the feel or experience of eating.
While it’s common for a lot of kids to go through phases of picky eating when they’re little (i.e. eating only their favorite food), ARFID is more serious because it keeps the child from consuming the needed calories and nutrients for their proper development. Aside from a limited range of preferred food, other symptoms of ARFID also include a fear of choking and/or vomiting. Over 3-5% of children are diagnosed with ARFID, and it tends to develop more commonly in young boys than in girls.
Raising awareness for eating disorders has become important now more than ever, as statistics report that severe cases of eating disorders are often left untreated and undiagnosed. When those suffering from an eating disorder don’t get the help that they need, chances of recovery are slim and the disorder will likely worsen over time. However, when you have a better understanding on the matter, it makes you better able to empathize with and show compassion towards those in need.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, talk to a professional and get the help you need to get better.
- American Psychological Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Washington, DC, USA; APA Publishing.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2017). Types of Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.adaa.org/eating-disorders/types-of-eating-disorders
- National Alliance Against Mental Illness (2018). Mental Health by The Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers