Three most prevalent types of eating disorders are:
Anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially chronic and life-threatening eating disorder defined by a refusal to maintain minimal body weight within 15% of an individual’s ideal weight. Other characteristics include an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, denial of the seriousness of the illness, and for women, amenorrhea (absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles otherwise expected to occur).
There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa. In the “restricting” subtype, low body weight is maintained purely by restricted food intake and, possibly, excessive exercise. The “binge eating/purging” subtype restrict food intake but also regularly engage in binge eating and/or purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas. It’s common to move back and forth between subtypes during the course of the illness.
Anorexia often appears during adolescence, with 76% reporting onset of the disorder between the ages of 11 and 20. It is about ten times more likely in females than males. The mortality rate for individuals diagnosed with anorexia is between 5–20%—the highest of any mental illness—with roughly half of those due to suicide.
People with Anorexia can have a distorted body image causing them to perceive themselves as too fat even when extremely thin. Perfectionism, along with other personality traits, can accompany Anorexia. Food and weight can be used to gain a sense of control in their lives.
Bulimia nervosa is a cyclical and recurring pattern of binge eating (uncontrolled bursts of overeating) followed by guilt, self-recrimination, and overcompensatory behavior such as crash dieting, overexercising, and purging to compensate for the excessive caloric intake.
Some describe their binge episodes as feeling a physical high, numbing out, going on auto-pilot, losing control, etc. The specific reasoning or triggers differ from person to person. People with bulimia often have “binge foods”— the foods they typically consume during binges. Binging leads to feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and failure. Trying to regain control and make up for their binge, they then purge the food (any form of getting rid of the food consumed).
Compulsive, excessive exercising is a type of bulimia nervosa also known as anorexia athletica or exercise bulimia. Anxious and guilty until exercising, these individuals force themselves to work out even when sick or injured. They’ll often “exercise off” the calories they’ve consumed, leaving them depleted of energy. Being praised for looking good only spurs them on. Often developed as a way to gain control, this disorder is more common in women. Measuring self-worth through performance, they tend to take out their emotions—depression, frustration, anger—on their bodies.
The often extreme binge and purge cycles of those affected by bulimia are often echoed in other harmful behaviors, such as sexual promiscuity, pathological lying, and shoplifting. Bulimia nervosa often appears during late adolescence or early adulthood. 90% of people with bulimia are women. The good news: roughly 70% of those affected by bulimia eventually recover.
The most prevalent eating disorder in the U.S., binge eating disorder (also known as obsessive compulsive overeating) is linked with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It involves the consumption of very large amounts of food in a short period of time. About 2% of American adults struggle with binge eating disorder. Though this particular disorder can develop at any age, it is seen most in young adults. In contrast to other eating disorders, one-third to one-fourth of all patients with binge eating disorder are men. Preliminary studies also show that the condition occurs equally among African-Americans and Caucasians.
Binge eating can be triggered by certain emotions (boredom, anger, sadness, etc.). The binge eater’s feelings of disgust and guilt often lead to depression. Studies find that obese binge eaters have much higher levels of depression than other obese individuals. Binge eaters are likely to have problems with impulsive behavior and alcohol. They feel they can’t control themselves, are typically not close with their community, and have trouble discussing their problems and feelings. Binge eaters have more health issues—joint pain, muscle pain, stress, headaches, menstrual problems, difficulty sleeping and digesting food—and often have suicidal thoughts. Ashamed, they excel at hiding their disorder, even from close friends and family.
Underdiagnosed, binge eating can be more difficult to recognize than other eating disorders. Because it is not commonly taught or discussed, many don’t realize the disorder exists or that there may be a psychological reason behind it. Random eating patterns can help diagnose binge eating: healthy foods for a few days, followed by dieting, followed by a relapse into binge eating. A common misconception is that binge eaters don’t have healthy eating habits or simply “don’t know better.” What makes this an eating disorder is the addiction to eating large amounts of food and repeated relapsing while trying to return to healthy eating.