Eating Disorders and Their Symptoms
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions and not just occasional binges. They usually require extensive medical and psychological treatment for proper management. Eating disorders may be caused by several factors
- Alteration in the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters
- Certain personality traits (e.g., type A personality)
- Certain medical and mental disorders (e.g., obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD)
- Media, peer pressure and cultural beliefs
Eating disorders typically begin with an unhealthy obsession with food, body weight or shape. Eating disorders require medical attention because they could lead to short-term and long-term health complications, which can be fatal.
There are six common types of eating disorders. Their causes or triggers and their symptoms vary.
This is the most well-known eating disorder. It tends to affect women more than men and typically seen in young adults. They perceive themselves as being overweight, even if they are underweight. They tend to constantly monitor their weight, avoid eating certain types of foods and restrict their calorie intake.
Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include
- Believing they are overweight despite being normal or even underweight compared to others of the same age and height
- Obsession with counting every calorie
- Restricting food intake
- Fasting and crash dieting
- Excessive exercise
- Binge eating followed by purging (vomiting, taking laxatives, excessive exercise, etc.)
- Fear of gaining weight, which can be intense
- Persistent behaviors to avoid gaining weight
- Unwilling to maintain a healthy weight and denying being underweight
- Distorted body image
- Obsessive, compulsive symptoms: Constant thoughts about food, weight, hoarding food, difficulty eating in public and exhibit a strong desire to control their environment, as well as limiting their ability to be spontaneous.
- Systemic symptoms: Over time, anorexia can be very damaging to the body, resulting in thinning of bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails and growth of a layer of fine hair (similar to baby hair) all over their body. Severe, untreated anorexia can result in electrolyte abnormalities, multi-organ failure and death.
Like anorexia, bulimia nervosa is also a well-known eating disorder that is more commonly seen in women, adolescents and young adults. People with bulimia typically eat large amounts of food till they are painfully full. They are unable to stop or control their waiting. The binging is followed by purging, which includes forced vomiting, fasting, taking laxatives, diuretics and enema or excessive exercising. However, individuals with bulimia usually maintain normal body weight.
- Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include
- Repeated episodes of binge eating followed by purging
- Low self-esteem
- Fear of gaining weight
- Sore throat
- Swollen salivary glands
- Worn tooth enamel
- Poor oral health
- Tooth decay
- Acid reflux
- Severe dehydration
- Hormonal disturbances
- Electrolyte imbalance, causing a stroke or heart attack
Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders. It can develop at any age but more commonly during adolescence or early adulthood. They tend to eat large amounts of food in a short period and lack control. They do not restrict calories or have purging behaviors. They are usually overweight or obese.
Common symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating large amount of food rapidly
- Eating in secret
- Eating till they are uncomfortably full
- Binging despite not feeling hungry
- Unable to control binging episodes
- Feelings of stress, shame, disgust or guilt due to the binging
- No purging behaviors
- Becoming overweight or obese
- Excess weight can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke or diabetes
Pica involves eating things that are not edible or considered food. They crave non-food substances, such as ice, soil, pebbles, chalk, paper, hair, cloth, soap or cornstarch. Pica can occur in all age groups. It is more commonly seen in children, pregnant women and individuals with mental disorders or iron deficiency. Pica can cause an increased risk of poisoning, infections, internal injuries and nutritional deficiencies. Those with pica may ingest dangerous substances, which can be sharp objects, causing fatal complications. If eating certain non-food substances is normally a part of someone’s culture, religion or something that is socially acceptable, it is not considered to be pica.
5. Rumination disorder
Rumination disorder is a newly recognized eating disorder. In this condition, people regurgitate food they have previously chewed and swallowed. They then rechew it and either swallow it again or spit it out. It usually occurs within the first 30 minutes after eating. It is voluntary reflux. This can develop during infancy, childhood or adulthood. Infants usually grow out of it on their own. However, growing children and adults usually require therapy. Infants and children with this disorder could be unable to gain weight. This results in loss of weight and severe malnutrition, which can be fatal. Adults with this disorder tend to restrict the amount of food they eat, especially in public. This can cause weight loss, making them underweight.
6. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) was previously known as “feeding disorder of infancy and early childhood.” It usually develops during infancy or early childhood and persists into adulthood. It is equally common in men and women. In this disorder, there is disturbed eating either due to a lack of interest in eating or dislike toward certain smells, tastes, textures, colors or temperatures. This is beyond picky eating or lower food intake, which is considered normal. Avoidance or restriction of certain foods due to the lack of availability or religious or cultural beliefs do not count either.
Common symptoms of ARFID include:
- Avoiding or restricting food intake, preventing the person from eating sufficient calories or nutrients
- Difficulty eating with others
- Weight loss
- Poor or delayed child development
- Nutrient deficiencies
7. Other eating disorders
Some less common eating disorders that exist include
- Purging disorder: Self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics or excessive exercising without binging.
- Night eating syndrome: Eating excessively at night, often after awakening from sleep.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): This includes any other condition that has similar symptoms to that of an eating disorder but doesn’t fit into any particular category. For example, orthorexia is a condition where people have an obsessive focus on healthy eating to an extent that disrupts their daily lives. They may eliminate entire food groups, fearing they are unhealthy. They follow self-imposed diet rules, which can lead to malnutrition, severe weight loss, difficulty eating socially and distress.
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Ellis CR. Pica. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/914765-overview
Ellis CR. Rumination. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/916297-overview
Belak LB. Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2500040-overview
Medscape. Eating Disorders. https://www.medscape.com/resource/eating-disorders
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