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Causes of Eating Disorders & the Types of Eating Disorders Along With Their Symptoms

Eating disorders are not just about food. Today, eating disorders are known to be complex mental health conditions that often need intervention from medical and psychological professionals to help the person suffering from an eating disorder. Eating disorders involve severe problems with a person’s thoughts about food and eating behaviors. A person having an eating disorder is likely to either eat much less or much more than needed. It is important to remember that eating disorders are medical conditions and not a lifestyle choice. There are several types of eating disorders, and it is essential to recognize these disorders and their symptoms. Here are some of the common types of eating disorders and their symptoms.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a term used to refer to psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating patterns in some people. This may begin as an obsession with body weight, body shape, or food. In severe cases, eating disorders can have some serious health consequences. And may even result in death if left untreated. People who have eating disorders experience a wide variety of symptoms. However, most eating disorders tend to include severe food binges, restriction of food, or purging behaviors like vomiting, extreme fasting, or extreme exercising.(1, 2, 3, 4)

Eating disorders can affect anyone of any gender and any age, though they are most often seen in young women and adolescents. It is estimated that 13 percent of youth may develop at least one form of eating disorder by the time they reach the age of 20. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), in the United States alone, there are approximately 20 million women and 10 million men who have or have had an eating disorder at some time or the other in their life.(5, 6)

What are the Causes of Eating Disorders?

It is believed that several factors cause eating disorders. One of these reasons is genetics. Adoption and twin studies involving twins who got separated at birth and were adopted by different families have shown evidence that eating disorders might be hereditary. Such research studies have shown that if one twin developed an eating disorder, the other twin also has a 50% chance of developing one too.(7)

Another cause of eating disorders is personality traits, especially perfectionism, neuroticism, and impulsivity. These are three personality traits that have frequently been linked with a greater risk of developing an eating disorder. Some of the other potential causes of eating disorders include the perceived pressure to be thin, exposure to media that promotes such ideals, and a cultural preference for thinness.(7)

Certain eating disorders have also been found to appear mostly non-existent in cultures that have not been exposed to the Western ideals of thinness.(8)

Even though culturally promoted and accepted ideals of thinness are present in many parts of the world, it has been observed that in some countries, there are very few individuals who end up having an eating disorder. This is why experts believe that there is a wide range of factors that cause eating disorders.

Recently, researchers have even proposed that the differences in brain biology and structure might also have a role to play in who develops eating disorders. In particular, the levels of brain messengers like dopamine and serotonin are believed to play an important role.(9, 10) However, more in-depth and long-term studies are needed to confirm these conclusions.

Common Types of Eating Disorders and their Symptoms

Let us now look at the common eating disorders and their symptoms.

  1. Anorexia Nervosa

    Anorexia nervosa is one of the most famous eating disorders in the world. This eating disorder typically develops during adolescence or young adulthood, and it tends to affect women more than men.(11)

    Individuals who have anorexia tend to see themselves as being overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. This causes them to constantly watch their weight, severely limit their calorie intake, and avoid having certain types of food.

    Some of the common symptoms of anorexia include:(12)

    • Being overly underweight when compared to other people of similar age and height.
    • Having very restrictive eating options.
    • Having an intense fear of gaining weight.
    • Indulging in persistent behaviors to avoid gaining weight, despite already being underweight.
    • Having a relentless pursuit of thinness.
    • Unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight.
    • Having a distorted body image, including a strong denial of being severely underweight.
    • Having a heavy influence of perceived body shape and weight on self-esteem.

    Many times one will also find the presence of obsessive-compulsive symptoms. For example, many people affected by anorexia are found to be preoccupied with constant thoughts of food, and some may even obsessively hoard food or collect recipes. Such people often have difficulty eating in public and have a strong desire to control their eating environment, thus limiting their ability to be social and spontaneous.

    Officially, anorexia is categorized into two subtypes – the binge eating and purging type and the restricting type.(13)

    People who have the restricting subtype tend to lose weight through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise. Those who have the binge eating and purging subtype are likely to binge on large amounts of food at a time or eat very little. In both cases, after they eat, individuals indulge in purging activities like taking laxatives or diuretics, vomiting, or exercising excessively.

    Anorexia can have a lot of serious side effects on the body, and over a period of time, people living with this disorder may experience infertility, thinning of their bones, brittle nails and hair, and growth of a layer of fine hair all over their body.(14) In very serious cases, anorexia can even cause brain, heart, or multi-organ failure, and eventually death.

  2. Bulimia Nervosa

    Another well-known eating disorder is bulimia nervosa. Bulimia also tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood, like anorexia, and it is more common in women than men.(15)

    Individuals with bulimia tend to eat unusually large amounts of food at one time. Each episode of binge eating continues until the person gets painfully full. During such a binging episode, the person usually feels that they are unable to control how much they eat or stop eating altogether. Binging can happen with any type of food, but usually with the foods that the person normally avoids. People with bulimia will then attempt to purge to make up for the calories they consumed and also to relieve gut discomfort.

    Commonly exhibited purging behaviors include forced vomiting, fasting, diuretics, laxatives, enemas, and excessive exercise.

    Symptoms of bulimia are very similar to purging or binge eating subtypes of anorexia. However, bulimia patients are able to maintain a relatively normal weight instead of becoming underweight.

    Some of the common symptoms of bulimia include:(16)

    • Recurring episodes of binge eating while feeling out of control to stop this behavior.
    • Recurring episodes of purging behaviors after binging to avoid weight gain.
    • Self-esteem issues with extreme worries about body weight and shape.
    • An intense fear of gaining weight, despite having a normal weight.

    Some of the side effects of bulimia on your health may include a sore or inflamed throat, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, swollen salivary glands, severe dehydration, acid reflux, irritation of the gut, and hormonal disturbances.(17)

    In severe cases, bulimia can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, including potassium, sodium, and calcium, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

  3. Pica

    Pica is another common eating disorder that involves eating things that are not considered to be food or are inedible. People who have pica tend to crave having non-food items like dirt, ice, chalk, soil, paper, soap, hair, wool, cloth, laundry detergent, pebbles, cornstarch, etc.(18)

    Pica tends to affect adults, adolescents, and children. However, the disorder is usually observed more frequently in pregnant women, children, and individuals with mental disabilities.(19)

    Individuals with pica are at a high risk of getting poisoned, contracting infections, getting gut injuries, as well as nutritional deficiencies. In some cases, depending on what the individual ingests, pica can be fatal.

    One thing to keep in mind, though, is that to be diagnosed with pica, the eating of non-food substances should not be an acceptable part of their religion or culture. It must also not be a socially acceptable practice.

    The common symptoms of pica include:

    • Nausea
    • Pain in the stomach or abdominal cramps to indicate an intestinal blockage
    • Constipation
    • Diarrhea
    • Symptoms of lead poisoning
    • Stomach ulcers which may lead to bloody stools
    • Injuries to teeth
    • Intestinal blockage
    • Infections
    • Behavior problems
    • School problems
    • Fatigue
    • Symptoms of poor nutrition
  4. Binge Eating Disorder

    Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders in the United States.(20) This eating disorder tends to start during adolescence and early adulthood, though it can affect people at a later age as well. Individuals with binge eating disorder have symptoms that are similar to those of bulimia or anorexia’s binge-eating subtype. For example, they usually consume unusually large amounts of food in short periods of time while feeling a lack of control during their binges.

    People with binge eating disorder do not use purging behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise, and neither do they restrict their calorie intake to make up for their binges.

    Some of the common symptoms of binge eating disorder include:(21)

    • Eating large amounts of food rapidly, usually in secret and until unnaturally full, despite not feeling hungry.
    • Feeling a total lack of control to stop the episodes of binging.
    • Feelings of distress like disgust, shame, or guilt when thinking about the binging behavior.
    • No use of purging behaviors.

    Individuals with binge eating disorders are usually obese or overweight. This further increases the risk of medical complications associated with excess weight, including stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

  5. Rumination Disorder

    Rumination disorder is one of the newly recognized eating disorder. This is a condition in which a person regurgitates the food they have previously swallowed or chewed, re-chew it, and then either spit it out re-swallow it.(22)

    This rumination behavior usually takes place within the first half an hour after having a meal. However, unlike medical conditions like reflux, rumination is voluntary.(23)

    Common symptoms of rumination disorder include:

    Rumination disorder can develop during childhood, infancy, or adulthood. In infants, it usually develops between 3 to 12 months of age and tends to disappear on its own. Adults and children with this condition typically need to undergo therapy to resolve the eating disorder.

    If the disorder is not resolved in infants, rumination disorder can lead to weight loss and severe malnutrition. Adults with this eating disorder may limit their food intake, especially in public. This may cause them to lose weight and become underweight.


There are several other types of eating disorders that affect many people around the world. Eating disorders should be treated as mental health conditions and usually require treatment. They can cause severe damage to your body and even death if left untreated. If you have an eating disorder or know someone who has one, it is important to seek medical assistance from a healthcare professional who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.


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Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 29, 2021

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