What Are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?

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Eating disorders affect countless people across the globe and can take a major toll on one's life and overall health. They are typically more commonly diagnosed in females. However, they can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, background, or ethnicity. There are multiple different kinds of eating disorders, and they can affect everyone differently. 

In some cases, the signs that someone is struggling with an eating disorder are incredibly evident. This can be observed just by looking at their physical appearance or observing their eating habits. But in other situations, eating disorders can be less noticeable and kept well hidden. Some people can manage to keep their eating disorders a secret from others for a long time. 

When someone struggles with an eating disorder over an extended period of time, they risk a lot of different mental and physical health complications. Some of these complications can have long-term side effects. Eating disorders may take such a toll on one's mental health that they turn to substance misuse to cope. This can lead to addiction and make the problem even worse. 

At Pathways Recovery Center, we specialize in treating concurrent disorders simultaneously. In other words, we treat addiction and mental health issues such as an eating disorder at the same time. This can help get to the root of the problem and lead to full and lasting recovery. 

What Are Eating Disorders?

Someone who struggles with an eating disorder has a mental health condition that causes them to engage in habits of unhealthy eating. In many cases, eating disorders begin when someone develops an irrational way of thinking about food or their body. This can affect what they eat, how often they eat, and how much they eat. Even though their struggle may be obvious to those around them, they may refuse to see the problem with how they are behaving. 

In many cases, a desire for control has an effect on someone's likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Some people with eating disorders may feel as if they don't have control over other aspects of their lives, so they choose to find that control through their eating habits. This could be by severely limiting how much they eat or by agonizing over the types of food they choose to eat. They may also obsess over their weight and overall appearance.

In some cases, eating disorders stem from a desire for comfort and are expressed in the opposite way. For example, some people may turn to food as a way to cope when they are struggling with sadness, stress, or other negative emotions. They may eat too much or prefer unhealthy items over food that is going to fuel them. This can cause an equally unhealthy relationship with food, as well as weight gain and other health problems. 

It is important to educate children at a young age about the dangers of eating disorders. In addition, it is important for parents, teachers, coaches, and other people in authority positions to recognize the signs. This way, in the case that someone under their care is struggling, they can try to get them some help as soon as possible. 

What Causes Eating Disorders?

It is hard to pinpoint an exact explanation as to why some people experience eating disorders, and others never do. The reasoning can be different for each individual. It can have to do with genetics and the way they are brought up. It can also have to do with certain environmental factors or traumatic experiences that a person has gone through. 

Many people who struggle with eating disorders have some deep-rooted inner turmoil going on that they may not even be consciously aware of. For example, maybe something occurred during their childhood that they have buried deep inside and have not wanted to confront. Even on an unconscious level, this could have played a role in their development of an eating disorder years later. In order to truly begin the healing process, that problem must be addressed. 

Other people who struggle with eating disorders have been bullied or torn down by others. This could be from an abusive partner, a parent or guardian, a former friend, or even other children at school. In order to prevent more bullying, they may feel great displeasure over their own appearance. They may never be satisfied with what they see when they look in the mirror. 

Types of Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders. Someone who struggles with anorexia nervosa will often view themselves as overweight even when they are not. They may feel great disgust over their weight and severely limit how much they are eating in order to keep their weight down. In many cases, they'll do this through obsessive calorie counting and skipping meals altogether. 

Someone who struggles with anorexia may find themselves weighing themselves obsessively, even multiple times a day. They might find that no matter how much they restrict, they are still not content with how they look. This can lead to poor self-esteem. They may try other methods of weight loss, such as vigorous exercise, diuretics, or unsafe fasting. 

When someone continues to struggle with anorexia over time, it begins to take a major toll on their body. They will typically experience weakened bones and brittle hair and nails. Daily side effects could include dizziness, dehydration, low body temperature, and low blood pressure. In severe cases, they may experience long-term organ damage.

Types of Eating Disorders: Bulimia Nervosa

Similarly to those who struggle with anorexia nervosa, those who struggle with bulimia nervosa also have a skewed vision of themselves. They likely struggle with feeling obsessed with being thin and having a negative body image. The main difference is that people with this type of eating disorder will eat large meals, often over a short period of time. Then, in order to avoid gaining weight, they will force themselves to purge. 

Purging will typically occur either through forcing oneself to vomit, using laxatives, or both. They may also engage in excessive vigorous exercise and weigh themselves frequently. Because they appear to be eating but are then often secretly purging, people struggling with this disorder often don't show any fluctuations in weight. As a result, it can be very difficult to spot someone going through this. 

Bulimia is extremely dangerous and can lead to very unpleasant side effects such as dehydration, acid reflux, and throat discomfort. Due to frequent vomiting, problems like tooth decay and worn-down tooth enamel may also happen. 

Types of Eating Disorders: Binge-Eating Disorder

Similarly to those who struggle with bulimia, someone struggling with a binge-eating disorder will eat a large amount of food over a short period of time. However, the main difference is that they won't purge afterward. It is common for people with this disorder to feel a great deal of shame and guilt after a binge-eating session. They may try to hide evidence of how much they ate by concealing empty wrappers, packages, etc. 

People with this type of eating disorder will often turn to food to soothe them after a stressful day or when they are feeling down. However, the food they choose or the quantity of it might not be healthy. They may find themselves gaining weight very quickly, especially if they are not incorporating exercise into their lives. This can further contribute to their overall low self-esteem and unstable emotions. 

Aside from obesity, other side effects associated with this disorder could include: 

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Infertility 
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Types of Eating Disorders: Avoidant/Restrictive Eating Disorder

An avoidant/restrictive eating disorder is often connected to certain feelings or memories from childhood. It is common for some children to not be willing to try certain foods that they don't find appealing. Some factors that may play into this unwillingness could be texture, taste, smell, or even color. While this may not be worrisome when a person is still a child, when they don't grow out of it in adulthood, it could become more of a concern. 

When an adult struggles with this sort of disorder, it is not a matter of merely being a picky eater. Certain foods may actually stir up a very upsetting and fearful emotional response for them. The selection of foods they may be comfortable eating may be very limited. This can be a problem because they might not be taking in enough calories or the vitamins and minerals their body needs. 

Avoidant/restrictive types of eating disorders can cause other problems as well, including problems with overall development. Some people may have to rely upon supplements to help make up for the nutrition they aren't getting enough of from food. In severe cases, tube feeding may even be necessary. 

How Do I Know if Someone I Care About Is Struggling With an Eating Disorder?

Maybe you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, but you want to be sure before confronting them about it. While everyone exhibits the symptoms of eating disorders differently, there are some primary signs that you can look out for in your loved ones. These signs can be associated with not only how they look but also their basic daily habits that may seem normal but are signifying something more going on beneath the surface. 

Keep an eye out for the following signs if you suspect your loved one has an eating disorder: 

  • Do they engage in a lot of negative self-talk, especially about their weight?
  • Is it common for them to obsessively track calories or study food labels before eating? 
  • Do they often skip meals or avoid eating around other people?
  • Have they experienced rapid or unexplainable weight loss? (Or weight gain in the case of binge-eating disorder)
  • Do they often wear oversized clothing in an effort to conceal how much weight they have lost? 
  • Is it common for them to exercise vigorously, sometimes more than once a day?
  • Do they often switch from one fad diet to another fad diet in hopes of losing weight? 
  • Are there certain food categories they refuse to eat entirely? 
  • Do they often excuse themselves to go to the bathroom after eating a meal? 
  • Is it common for them to deny being hungry at mealtimes or claim they are still full from what they ate earlier in the day? 
  • Do they often sip on coffee or tea but avoid eating actual meals that provide sustenance? 
  • Have you ever caught them trying to hide evidence of binge eating? (For example, large quantities of food going missing or finding wrappers hidden away)
  • Do they often complain about their weight to you? 
  • Have you noticed any frequent bruising on their knuckles? (A possible sign of frequent vomiting)
  • Has your loved one ever been confronted about their eating habits before and denied that they have a problem?

If you have noticed any of these things, your loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder and need your help seeking treatment. 

How Do I Talk to Someone About Their Eating Disorder?

Just like with other mental health concerns, it is hard to watch someone you love struggle. It's also difficult to see them be unwilling to see that they need help and don't have to keep living this way. If you believe that someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important that you have a serious conversation with them about it. Thinking about having this conversation may be intimidating. You may be worried that this conversation may be uncomfortable and may affect your relationship with this person in some way. 

The truth is that it is possible that your loved one may become angry or defensive. They may also deny that they have a problem and need to seek treatment. But on the other hand, this could also be the wake-up call or push they need to accept that they need help. It is important that this is not a conversation that you have simply on a whim. 

Rather, you want to take the time to consider what you're going to say. This is a very delicate conversation to have with someone, and you want to make sure that you're as calm and respectful as possible. If you have never struggled with an eating disorder yourself, it can be hard to wrap your head around what your loved one is going through. This can make it hard for you to know the right things to say to them without coming across as offensive. 

Having a discussion with a therapist before sitting down for this conversation with your loved one could be helpful. They can help you to have a better understanding of what your loved one is going through. This can provide you with a fresh perspective and an increased level of compassion for them. The therapist can also help prepare you with useful things that you can say to help convince your loved one to get help. 

When you do sit down with your loved one, make sure that you do it in a private spot where you are both comfortable. Tell them that you're not judging them but are concerned about them and their health. Encourage them to seek professional treatment and assure them that you're going to be there to support them along the way. 

At Pathways Recovery Center, we understand that conversations like these with loved ones can be challenging. They can be especially difficult in situations in which substance misuse may also be involved. It's for this reason that we often recommend group therapy. This is a great resource that allows everyone to have a productive and guided conversation. 

Mental health issues can affect everyone differently. For some people, they can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, or avoidant/restrictive eating disorders. Struggling with a disorder like this over an extended period of time can feel debilitating. It can become exhausting to try to keep this struggle a secret from those you care about. The good news is that you don't have to go through this alone. There is treatment available, and recovery is possible. At Pathways Recovery Center, we can help guide you through your healing process. Whether you're struggling with an eating disorder, substance use disorder, or another mental health issue, we are here for you. Call (888) 771-0966 today. 

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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