Learn / What Are Eating Disorders? Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

What Are Eating Disorders? Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

Grace Ogren
 June 13th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Many feeding and eating disorders exist.
  • All ages and genders can develop an eating disorder.
  • Therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical care can restore health.

Eating disorders are illnesses defined by disturbances in eating patterns1 and food intake. They also include a preoccupation with body image, calories, and weight. People of any age, sex, gender, and background can develop an eating disorder. Someone with an eating disorder (also called ED) may avoid certain foods or restrict their diet, exercise excessively, use laxatives, or vomit after eating. 

Eating disorders are often an expression of the emotional pains in conditions like depression, trauma, and anxiety. Someone may develop an ED as a way to punish or gain control over themselves. Eating disorders can also develop due to genetic predispositions and social factors. Someone with an ED runs a higher risk of physical health complications, mental health decline, death, and suicide. 

A blend of therapy, weight restoration, and nutritional counseling can not only treat symptoms of an eating disorder, but heal its underlying causes for life-long recovery.

Listen to our podcast to learn more about eating disorder and addiction recovery from Recovery.com’s Chief of Staff, Amanda Uphoff. 

What Are The Causes of Eating Disorders?

Multiple factors can cause eating disorders1, including genetic predispositions, peer influence, mental health conditions, and bullying. Behaviors and personality dispositions can also lead to an eating disorder and affect what types of eating disorders may develop.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders take many forms, from restricting diets, purging, and a blend of both. Healing exists for each kind of eating disorder and its potential health complications.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa causes someone to restrict their food intake2, exercise compulsively, and intensely fear weight gain. Someone with anorexia will often have a distorted body image, leading them to feel constantly overweight and in a pursuit of thinness. Anorexia has a very high mortality rate compared to other mental illnesses due to the health effects of emaciation (extreme thinness) and risk for suicide.

Anorexia is more common in females2 and occurs most often in adolescence or early adulthood. Someone with anorexia often won’t recognize their low weight, which can make it difficult for them to understand the severity of their condition and agree to treatment. As they progressively lose weight, severe health complications and other symptoms can arise, including:

  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Irregular periods or no periods at all, which can lead to infertility
  • Constipation
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Low and irregular heart rate
  • Shallow breathing or feeling out of breath
  • Dry skin and brittle nails
  • Bone thinning
  • Organ failure
  • Heart and brain damage

Co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety often contribute to the development of anorexia2, as does growing up overweight, having parents or blood relatives with anorexia, and being body shamed by peers or loved ones. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people with anorexia1, following death from health complications caused by undereating and excessive exercise.

Early intervention, weight restoration, and therapy can reverse the effects of anorexia and teach the coping tools needed for long-term recovery, helping patients navigate day-to-day stressors and heal their relationships with food—and themselves.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is defined as a pattern of binge eating and purging3. Binge eating involves eating large meals or many high-calorie foods in one sitting, often with the inability to stop. Purging is used to compensate for the binge and prevent weight gain. Someone may purge through self-induced vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise, or fasting. Binge-purging can quickly become a self-feeding cycle.

Bulimia nervosa occurs most commonly in young women1. It can develop due to brain abnormalities, social influence, and mental health conditions. Bulimia can lead to weight loss and symptoms like:

  • Irregular periods
  • Throat and mouth pain from the stomach acid in vomit
  • Tooth damage and erosion, also from stomach acid
  • Stomach pain and bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration from purging
  • Imbalanced electrolytes

Unlike anorexia, someone with bulimia may not appear underweight; they can even look overweight. That’s why clinical evaluations and examinations are important for diagnosis and treatment of bulimia. A doctor will check their patient’s vital signs, ask questions related to binge or purging behaviors, and check for inflammation in the mouth and throat to diagnose bulimia nervosa and start treatment.

Therapy can address the underlying causes of bulimia and teach skills to manage binge-eating, while weight restoration and nutritional care can improve physical health.

Binge-Eating Disorder

Someone with binge-eating disorder will binge on food, but not purge afterwards1. Binge-eating often includes a lack of control and inability to stop eating, which can cause someone to eat large meals. They may feel sick after binging and gain weight over time, potentially becoming obese. 

Binge-eating disorder can affect men and women of all ages. It can lead to extreme weight gain, shame, and secretive habits to conceal binging behaviors. Other symptoms include:

  • Eating very quickly
  • Eating despite feeling full or not hungry
  • Stomach pain due to overeating
  • Eating alone or in a secret location to hide eating habits
  • Lying about eating habits
  • Frequent dieting to try to control weight gain
  • Bloating

Therapy can help someone with binge-eating disorder learn to control binging and find comfort in other activities. Personalized eating plans and exercise regimes can also reduce weight at a safe, comfortable pace.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID causes avoidant or restrictive eating habits4. Someone with ARFID may avoid certain food groups, like carbs, or specific foods, like ice cream. They may also restrict their eating and not meet their required calorie intake. ARFID differs from other eating disorders in that body image and fear of weight gain don’t contribute to food habits; rather, someone may avoid or restrict food simply because they don’t like it.

ARFID was commonly thought of as a childhood disorder, like a more severe version of picky eating. But physicians saw adults experiencing symptoms too, and moved to shift the diagnosis to both children and adults. 

Symptoms of ARFID include:

  • Avoiding food groups or types of food suddenly and dramatically
  • Eating much less than usual
  • Eating fewer and fewer foods because they no longer sound appetizing
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced interest in food and meal times
  • Low/no appetite
  • Stomach and digestive problems

Treatment for ARFID often includes therapy to work through food avoidance and identify foods someone will enjoy eating. Weight restoration and nutritional care may be needed, but not always. 

Other Specified Eating or Feeding Disorder (OSFED) and Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED)

You can think of OSFED as a mix of eating disorder symptoms5 that don’t fall under anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder. A patient with this diagnosis may partially meet the requirement for one or more ED diagnoses. OSFED recognizes disordered behaviors and negative relationships with food as a hindrance on daily living, mental health, and physical health.

Similarly, UFED encapsulates eating disorder behaviors and symptoms that may not have a distinct classification. Some scholars and physicians debate the helpfulness of UFED and OSFED5, and instead suggest a singular term of ‘mixed eating disorders’. This term could offer more clarification for those diagnosed with it.

The symptoms of OSFED and UFED can vary widely, but typically include:

  • Restrictive diets; not eating certain foods
  • Purging behaviors (vomiting, excessive exercise, using laxatives)
  • An obsession with size and weight
  • Body dysmorphia

Therapy and possible weight restoration can help someone with OSFED or UFED heal short and long-term.


Pica is defined as eating non-food items or substances6, like mud or chalk. To diagnose, the person must be older than 2 and eating non-foods outside of cultural or societal norms. Pica can accompany disorders like schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or trichotillomania (compulsively pulling out hair). It commonly occurs in intellectually impaired patients, children, and pregnant women. One study found 28% of pregnant women experienced pica6 during their pregnancy. 

Pica doesn’t have a direct cause6, though it’s been theorized that iron and zinc deficiencies can cause cravings for non-foods7. Pica can also be fueled by curiosity—most people may wonder about eating non-foods or want to, but they realize they shouldn’t. Intellectually impaired people and children may lack this reasoning and eat non-foods regularly. Children may also resort to non-foods to survive in neglectful or abusive environments.

Common pica ‘foods’ include:

  • Dirt and clay
  • Ice
  • Charcoal
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Paper
  • Flaking paint (which can lead to lead poisoning)
  • Rocks, bricks, and cement
  • Plastic (plastic bags, containers, chunks)


Rumination syndrome describes habitually regurgitating food8 and swallowing it or spitting it out. It usually happens 10-15 minutes after eating and can last up to two hours. Unintentional stomach and diaphragm tension can cause regurgitation. It happens without nausea and retching, but can cause stomach pain. Once someone learns how to do it, it can become habitual, like burping.

Symptoms of rumination syndrome include:

  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Teeth erosion
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Abdominal pain

Rumination can co-occur with conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It can be a symptom of an eating disorder or occur alongside one. Treatment often includes breathing exercises to relax the diaphragm, behavioral therapies, and other relaxation methods to practice after meals. Staying relaxed can prevent the over-tightening of the stomach and diaphragm that allows rumination.

Explore Eating Disorders Treatment Centers

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Eating disorder treatment1 often includes a blend of behavioral therapies, nutritional counseling, medically supervised weight restoration, and medications. Treatment aims to address the ED’s symptoms and underlying causes, like anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma. Therapists work in 1:1, group, and family settings to help patients heal their relationship with food, navigate co-occurring conditions, and develop a relapse prevention plan.

Behavioral Therapies for Eating Disorders

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for eating disorders1 addresses binging, purging, and restrictive behaviors. It teaches coping tools and helps patients identify and change untrue beliefs about food, their body, and self-image.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) helps in similar ways, but focuses more on accepting thoughts and emotions and living with their potential discomfort—without restricting, binging, or purging. It centers on mindfulness, helping patients experience emotions without trying to change or limit them.

Behavioral therapies often occur alongside medications (like antidepressants or antipsychotics), medical care, and nutritional counseling.

Medical Care and Monitoring

Medical care may take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting, depending on each patient’s presentation and how underweight they may be. Weight restoration aims to safely restore weight until patients reach a healthy base weight. It focuses on physical health and safety, but restoring weight can also restore cognitive functioning.

Weight restoration9 can be done via feeding tube, nutritional supplements, and meal monitoring to ensure patients eat full meals. Other medical services may include heart monitoring, medications, and potential life-saving measures in the case of heart failure or other organ failures.

In an inpatient setting, patients receive 24/7 care and monitoring. This may be necessary for severely underweight patients and/or those who refuse to eat due to an eating disorder. Nurses and clinical staff monitor vital signs and track weight. In an outpatient setting, care and monitoring may be available, but not 24/7. This can fit the needs of someone at a stable weight, but needing ongoing therapeutic care and monitoring.

Nutritional Counseling

In nutritional counseling, a certified nutrition counselor assesses current eating habits10 and identifies dietary changes. They help create meal plans, educate on the importance and effects of good nutrition, and help patients with eating disorders change how they view food. For example, they may explain the benefits of feared food groups and “fear foods” to lower the fear and negative associations someone may have.

Nutritional counseling can disprove untrue beliefs or fears about food and help patients feel more comfortable eating new/more foods, complementing behavioral therapies and  weight restoration.

What to Expect When Seeking Treatment

What happens when you seek treatment for an eating disorder? It varies for everyone, but you can expect your appointments with therapists and medical providers to follow general structures.

Medical Providers

You’ll typically meet with your primary care physician (PCP) first to start the treatment process, then see specialists at their referral. In this initial appointment, you and your doctor will discuss what you’ve been experiencing and struggling with. Based on your discussion, you can ask questions like:

  • Do my symptoms meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • What level of care do you recommend for my symptoms and their effect on my life?
  • What can I do to take care of myself at home?
  • Will I be put on medication? Which one, and what are its side effects?

Your doctor will likely provide physical evaluations, checking your mouth, throat, stomach, and your heart rate, among other vital signs. These evaluations can reveal and confirm health concerns, potentially leading to additional lab testing or other functional tests. Your doctor will use the results of their evaluations to determine the best next steps for you.

At the end of your appointment, you’ll likely leave with referrals to specialists, therapists, or a plan to start intensive care in an inpatient or outpatient setting. In severe cases, a PCP may send you directly to an emergency room.


Your first therapy session for eating disorder recovery often covers your history with eating disorders and general information about yourself. You’ll talk about what brought you into treatment, and depending on how much time you have, you may take assessments to help your therapist better understand your mental state and personality. Future sessions cover current and past issues more in depth, focusing on the thoughts and beliefs behind eating disorders, identifying triggers, and learning coping tools.

Overall, think of your first session as your therapist getting to know you, and you feeling comfortable with them. If you don’t find the right therapist on your first try, that’s okay. You’re encouraged to connect with new therapists if your current one doesn’t feel like the right fit. 

Lifestyle Strategies and Habits to Manage Eating Disorders

Lifestyle changes and new habits can help manage eating disorders. Remember to seek professional treatment as your first step in recovery, using new habits and lifestyle changes to complement your recovery and form your relapse prevention plan. 

Prioritize Good Sleep

Good sleep can help your mind and body work their best. This benefits your recovery and well-being as a whole. Try these tips to improve how long you sleep and your sleep quality:

  1. Create a nighttime routine that you enjoy and look forward to—purposefully wind down and prepare for sleep the same way each night to train your brain.
  2. Make sure your bedroom is a calm space focused on sleep. Don’t use it to work, eat, or scroll social media.
  3. Dim your lights an hour or longer before bed to trigger your natural circadian rhythm and make you feel sleepier.
  4. Get sunlight in the morning and evening, ideally the sunrise and sunset. You could take morning and evening walks, or sit outside on your porch to view and feel the sun. This can regulate your circadian rhythm.

Practice Stress-Reduction Strategies

Effective stress reduction strategies can vary person-to-person. You can identify what works for you in therapy, or you may already know from past experience. Keep one or two methods in mind to use as-needed, or work some of these examples into your weekly schedule: 

  • Drawing
  • Meditation
  • Talking to a friend or loved one
  • Journaling
  • Baking or cooking
  • Knitting, crocheting, or sewing
  • Taking a walk
  • Spending time in nature

Build and Connect With Support

Connect often with your support network as you undergo treatment, walk your recovery path, and live in long-term recovery. Your support network could include family, friends, and people at your work or place of worship. Keep them up-to-date on your treatment journey and how they can support you.

Friends and family can offer their support and keep you accountable. For example, they may catch or point out potential behaviors you’ve reverted back to, or new habits that could lead to an ED recurrence. 

Find Eating Disorder Treatment

Treatment for all types of eating disorders is an essential start in recovery. A personalized blend of therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical care can restore physical health and heal underlying causes and conditions. You can hear a first-account story of eating disorder recovery by listening to the episode with Amanda Uphoff on Recovery.com’s podcast.

To find eating disorder treatment, you can browse our list of treatment providers and compare services, pricing, and reviews to find the best center for your or a loved one’s needs. 

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