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What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating are characterized by severe disturbances in eating behavior. These disorders can fall into several types:

  • Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which people intentionally starve themselves. This causes extreme and unhealthy weight loss. Other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders or mood disorders, are commonly found in persons with anorexia.
  • Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by purging (self-induced vomiting); misuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medications; fasting; or excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating disorder is an illness that resembles bulimia nervosa and is characterized by episodes of uncontrolled eating, or bingeing. People with binge eating disorder typically consume huge amounts of food to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. It differs from bulimia because its sufferers do not purge their bodies of the excess food via vomiting, laxative abuse or diuretic abuse.


The most common symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Low body weight (less than 85 percent of normal weight for height and age)
  • Intense fear of becoming obese, even as individual is losing weight
  • Distorted view of one's body weight, size or shape; sees self as too fat, even when very underweight; expresses feeling fat, even when very thin
  • Refuses to maintain minimum normal body weight
  • In females, absence of three menstrual cycles without another cause
  • Excessive physical activity
  • Denies feelings of hunger
  • Preoccupation with food preparation
  • Bizarre eating behaviors

Persons with anorexia may also be socially withdrawn, irritable, moody and/or depressed.

People with bulimia (and binge eating disorder) typically consume huge amounts of food—often junk food—to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. With binge eating, however, comes guilt and depression.

Purging, via self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting, follows binges in those with bulimia. Purging brings relief that is only temporary. Individuals with bulimia are usually impulsive and more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Individuals with binge eating disorder often:

  • Eat large quantities of food
  • Do not stop eating until they are uncomfortably full
  • Have a history of weight fluctuations
  • Have more difficulty losing weight and keeping it off than people with other serious weight problems

Most people with eating disorders share certain personality traits and use abnormal eating rituals as a means of handling stress and anxiety. These personality traits often include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Fear of becoming fat


The cause of anorexia nervosa is not known. Genetics and hormones may play a role, as well as societal expectations surrounding body image, thinness and beauty. The eating disorder occurs more often in females than in males; high achieving white women in their teens or early 20s seem to be most susceptible. Anorexia can sometimes begin as innocent dieting behavior, but gradually progresses to extreme and unhealthy weight loss.

The causes of bulimia and binge eating are not known, either. Factors believed to contribute to the development of these eating disorders, especially bulimia, include cultural ideals and social attitudes toward body appearance and self-valuation based on body weight and shape. Like anorexia, these two eating disorders occur much more often in women, especially young women. Binge eating often follows or begins during a period of strict dieting.

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