Eating Disorders: Risks, Symptoms and Treatment

Dr.Poonam Sharma

February 23, 2022

Although the phrase “eating disorder” is included in the name, eating disorders are about much more than food. They are complicated mental health problems that often need the involvement of medical and psychiatric professionals to reverse their trajectory. These disorders refer to the conditions related to persistent eating behaviours and habits which affect many other aspects of our lives. In simple words, people lose control over their eating habits and either tend to overeat or not eat at all.

Almost anybody may develop an eating problem, regardless of their weight. The phrase “eating disorder” refers to many different diseases. However, their general characteristics are abnormal or disordered eating. The precise aetiology of eating problems is unknown. Experts think, however, that societal, biological, and psychological variables all influence their growth.

Many factors can lead to the development of an eating disorder. These include genetic conditions, biological factors, psychological and emotional health, external influences like peer pressure, low self-esteem, body image issues, bullying etc. 

Eating disorders are medical diseases, not a way of life. They impair your body’s capacity to get enough nutrients. Without proper nutrition, your body cannot function to its full capacity. Severe cases of eating disorders may also result in health complications such as heart and renal disorders or even death in some instances. However, there are therapies available to aid with the recovery process. Ignoring the signs of a possible eating disorder can be dangerous and lead to severe and irreparable health complications.

This article will tell you about significant eating disorders, their symptoms, and possible treatments.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a kind of mental illness characterised by a fixation with food or one’s physical form. They may strike anybody but are more common in young women.

Eating disorders are psychological problems that result in irregular eating patterns. They may begin with a fixation with food, weight, or physical form. They do not allow your body to get the proper nutrition required to perform various functions. Furthermore, binge eating can result in excess weight gain and accumulation of unhealthy fat, leading to many other diseases. At the same time, anorexia is a condition where the person barely eats to maintain a slim physique and deprives the body of proper nutrition. If these disorders are left untreated, severe eating disorders may have substantial health repercussions and, at times, can even prove to be fatal.

Individuals suffering from eating disorders may exhibit a range of symptoms. However, most involve extreme dietary restriction, eating binges, or purging behaviours such as vomiting or excessive exercise. While eating disorders may affect individuals of any gender and at any stage of life, they most often occur among teenagers and young women. Indeed, up to 13% of adolescents may have at least one eating problem by the age of 20.

Signs to Look Out in Eating Disorder

Body Insecurity 

Teenage years can be difficult for one as the body undergoes many physical changes. Of course, it is usual for teenagers to be worried about their looks. But obsessing over their looks and having the idea of maintaining a particular digit for their weight can be pretty detrimental.

These include: your child is spending too much time in front of the mirror and changing clothes too often before going out, wearing baggy clothes, spending too much time in the washroom, and losing confidence, ability to speak up, lack of concentration in studies. 

Excessive Exercise 

It is healthy to have a workout routine and keep the body active. Still, if your child is spending too much time exercising and pays too much attention to their physique, it can be harmful. They don’t feel like taking a break or a rest day. They work out even when sick, tired or injured can be a sign of insecurity and lead to an eating disorder. It is more widespread in teenage boys than girls as they have this urge to look buff and have an aesthetic physique. 

Fear of Eating in Front of Others

Suppose your child gets conscious while eating when others are around and tries to make excuses for not eating. In that case, it can be a sign of insecurity and a major red flag. In addition, it can lead to building a habit of not eating and skipping meals.

Over Consumption of Food

Suppose your teenager has a habit of eating late at night and snacking every day. It can lead to developing a very unhealthy habit of overeating and snacking. Teenagers usually try to sneak in food late at night post-bedtime and binge eat. 

Is There A Cause for Eating Disorder?

Experts are still inconclusive of a singular cause. Therefore, it is uncertain what causes eating disorders. However, researchers believe a complex combination of circumstances causes eating disorders. Genetic, biological, behavioural, psychological, and social factors are among such circumstances. Although eating disorders may affect anybody, they are more frequent among women. In addition, they are more common in adolescence or early adulthood. However, they might emerge throughout infancy or later in adulthood.

Some common factors which can affect or lead to the development of eating disorders are:

1. Genetic

Certain people have such gene combinations, increasing the risk of developing an eating disorder. According to a study, the gene pool and environment can severely affect eating disorders in women. Brain chemicals are also some biological factors that can affect eating disorders. 

Research examining siblings who were switched at birth and fostered by separate parents gives some indication that eating problems may be inherited. According to this study, if one twin has an eating problem, the other has a 50% chance of having one.

2. Psychological Health

As the child enters the adolescent stage, they are more likely to develop eating disorders because of certain psychological conditions. It can be low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, or the feeling of not having control over things. People suffering through these psychological conditions tend to compensate for the overwhelming emotions by either binge eating or just avoiding eating at all as a method of self-punishment. 

3. Emotional Health

Sometimes, we experience unexpected emotions resulting from a loss. It can be a loss of a person, a loss in your professional life, or even having a toxic or unhealthy relationship. During these times, people try to suppress their emotions or live in denial and try to eat their way out. 

4. Other Influences

Sometimes, teenagers have the idea that they have to look a certain way and maintain a certain weight. This psyche can be very dangerous because it leads to unrealistic goals and unachievable body goals. For example, most teenage girls want to have a slim physique that is picture-perfect. As a result, they tend to eat fewer meals or skip meals altogether. Unfortunately, as a result, they can become obsessed with looking a certain way and later develop eating disorders. 

Sometimes, kids are bullied for being a little chubby or too thin. It can negatively impact the child’s mental health and push them towards developing eating disorders. According to a study, peer pressure played a significant role in creating an eating disorder in teenage girls.

Many times teenagers try to look like a particular celebrity, follow their routines, habits, etc. Recently, Charlie D’Amelio, a TikTok content creator, shared the story of her struggles with eating disorders. Unfortunately, kids can mistake these disorders as a lifestyle choice and try to follow their actions as it is, which can be pretty dangerous. 

Having a disturbed eating habit not only disturbs the biological functions and physical health, but it also takes a toll on their mental health. It can lead to depression, having anger issues, extreme purging, and anxiety. These signs are most commonly visible in teenage girls. 

5. Personality Traits

Another factor is personality. Three personality qualities are often associated with an increased risk of eating:

  1. Neuroticism or negative traits.
  2. Perfectionism or concern for flawlessness and perfection.
  3. Impulsiveness, or the tendency to act without prior thoughts.

Sometimes abuse of any kind in childhood can also lead to depression, self-doubt, anxiety. These patterns can lead to developing impulse control ussies, shutting oneself out. Similarly, one can turn to food; eating, bingeing, and purging can cope with the overwhelming emotions. 

People who experienced sexual abuse during their younger ages have a higher chance of developing bulimia. 

According to a study, other possible explanations include perceived demands to be skinny, societal desires for thinness, and media exposure that promotes such ideals. Some eating disorders seem almost non-existent in societies that do not have exposure to Western thinness norms. Culturally acceptable standards of thinness are prevalent in many parts of the globe. Nonetheless, only a tiny percentage of people develop a severe eating disorder. As a result, they are usually the result of a combination of causes.

Experts have lately postulated that variations in brain anatomy and biology may play a role in developing eating disorders. For example, the amount of the cerebral transmitters serotonin and dopamine, in particular, may also be significant.

Types of Eating Disorder – Signs & Symptoms

There are many kinds of eating disorders. Some are more common than others. They all have slightly different signs and symptoms. Here are the most common eating disorders.

1. Anorexia Nervosa

A very well-known eating disorder is anorexia nervosa. It usually appears throughout youth or early adulthood and affects more women than males. People suffering from anorexia have this idea of maintaining abnormally low body weight and fear gaining weight which results in them being dangerously underweight. Therefore, they tend to continuously watch their weight, avoid particular meals, and drastically limit their calorie intake.

Common signs of anorexia nervosa include 

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Minimal eating habits
  • A solid aversion to gaining weight or consistent actions to prevent gaining weight
  • Dry and a yellow tint to the skin
  • A never-ending quest for thinness and a refusal to sustain a healthy weight
  • A significant impact of body mass or apparent body type on ego
  • A skewed body image, including the denial of being very underweight

Obsessive-compulsive behaviours are also common. For example, many anorexics consume frequent food ideas, and others may excessively gather recipes or stockpile food.

In addition, they may have difficulty eating in public and exhibit a great need to regulate their environment, making it extremely difficult for them to be spontaneous. Anorexia has two subtypes: 

2. Restrictive Anorexia

In this case, the person has many food restrictions and tries to bring down their calorie intake to the bare minimum. As a result, the person never binges or purges (induce vomiting, diuretics, use laxatives). 

3. Bingeing and Purging Anorexia

Bingeing anorexia is defined as consuming abnormally large portions of food and being unable to stop eating. It can lead to serious weight gain. In this case, the person tries to eat after a gap of 1-2 hours and eats large proportions, and eats even though they are not hungry. Because of this eating habit, they also experience episodes of purging quite frequently, which can be pretty unhealthy.

What is Purging?

People let their food out after eating by inducing vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, or exercising excessively in both circumstances. They get this sudden urge to cleanse the body and eliminate binge eating.

Anorexia may be dangerous to the body. Individuals suffering from it may have bone weakening, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and the development of a coating of fine hair all over their bodies over time.

Anorexia may cause cardiac, cerebral, or multi-organ failure and death in extreme situations.

4. Bulimia Nervosa

Another eating disorder is bulimia nervosa. According to a study, bulimia, like anorexia, seems to be less frequent in males than in women and develops between adolescence and early adulthood. Bulimics commonly consume abnormally enormous quantities of food in a short period. Each eating session often lasts until the individual is exceptionally full every time. During a binge, the individual generally feels unable to stop eating or regulate how much they consume.

Binges may occur with any food, although they are most typically associated with meals that the consumer would ordinarily avoid. Individuals with bulimia may then try to purge to counterbalance the calories ingested and remove gastrointestinal pain. Examples of everyday purging habits are forceful vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and extreme exercise.

Symptoms resemble those of anorexia nervosa. Individuals who have bulimia, on the other hand, generally maintain a reasonably average weight. They do not become underweight.

Given below are some of the most common bulimia nervosa symptoms:

  • Recurrent binge eating bouts with a sense of helplessness
  • Recurrent episodes of improper purging to avoid weight gain
  • A sense of self-worth that is unduly affected by physical form and weight
  • Apprehension about gaining weight while being of average weight

Bulimia may cause the following symptoms:

  • irritation and pain in your throat, 
  • enlarged salivary glands, 
  • damaged tooth enamel, 
  • tooth decay,
  • acid reflux, 
  • stomach discomfort, 
  • severe dehydration, 
  • hormone disruptions. 

Bulimia may also cause an imbalance in electrolyte levels, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. It may result in a stroke or a heart attack.

5. ARFID – Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

The term is simply a new label for an ancient disease. The phrase replaces “feeding disorder of infancy and early childhood,” a diagnostic traditionally reserved for children under seven. Although ARFID usually appears during infancy or early childhood, it may last beyond maturity. In addition, ARFID affects both men and women equally.

Individuals with this illness have disordered eating habits caused by a lack of interest in eating or a dislike for specific odours, tastes, colours, textures, or temperatures.

The following are some of the most common ARFID symptoms:

  • Food avoidance or restriction that stops a person from consuming enough calories or nutrients
  • Eating behaviours that obstruct basic social activities, such as dining with others
  • Weight loss or poor growth about age and height
  • Nutritional shortages, supplementation, or tube feeding

It’s vital to highlight that ARFID extends beyond typical tendencies like selective eating in children or reduced food intake in elderly folks. Furthermore, it excludes food avoidance or limitation due to scarcity or religious or cultural customs.

6. Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder occurs when a person regurgitates partly digested food. Then, they chew it again before swallowing or spitting it out. It happens between 15-30 min after eating a meal. Rumination disorder is a genetic condition and can be hereditary. 

Rumination, unlike self-induced purging, is an involuntary reflex. The initial episode is usually due to sickness, physical damage, or psychological discomfort. Food regurgitation may give some alleviation under these circumstances. However, even after the physical disease or injury has healed, the body may continue to regurgitate food as a reaction to pain.

Rumination disorder may begin as early as childhood. Infants that develop rumination often improve without therapy. On the other hand, persistent rumination may lead to malnourishment. Therefore, rumination in teens and adults usually needs psychiatric intervention.

A person suffering from this condition may experience the following symptoms just before regurgitating food:

  • Nausea
  • Excessive Burping
  • Discomfort
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Electrolyte Imbalance
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Shed Weight
  • Malnourishment

7. Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorders, like bulimia or the binge eating form of anorexia, often rapidly consume a considerable quantity of food. However, they do not limit their calorie intake at other times or expel the extra food they ingest. As a result, when eating, a person suffering from a binge eating disorder may feel out of control.

Binge eating is associated with weight gain, and many persons with binge eating disorders are overweight or obese. In addition, according to one study, binge eating is more frequent in men and older individuals than in other types of eating disorders.

The following are some of the most common signs of binge eating disorder:

  • Not feeling hungry
  • Consuming enormous quantities of food quickly, in secrecy, and until uncomfortably full
  • You are experiencing a loss of control during binge-eating episodes.
  • When thinking about binge eating, you may experience sentiments of humiliation, disgust, or guilt.
  • Purging activities such as calorie restriction, vomiting, extreme exercise, or the use of laxatives or diuretics to compensate for bingeing are not permitted.

8. Pica

Pica is another eating disorder in which people eat things that aren’t food. Non-food items like ice, mud, soil, chalk, and soap are essential to Pica patients. They also need paper, hair, wool, pebbles, and laundry detergent. People of all ages can get Pica, including adults, kids, and teenagers. However, three groups of people are more likely to get this disease: young people, pregnant women, and people who have mental problems.

Pica patients may be more likely to get poisoned, get infections, get stomach injuries, or not get enough food. Pica can be dangerous, depending on what you mix as a supplement.

As long as eating things that are not food doesn’t happen all the time in someone’s culture or religion, they can’t be called “pica.” It should not be socially acceptable if someone does this to their friends.

Pica patients seek and eat non-food stuff. Some examples of such goods are:

  • Dirt
  • Chalks
  • Bricks
  • Rocks
  • Detergent
  • Hairs
  • Cotton
  • Papers
  • Fabric

Pica may begin in infancy or as an adult. According to one study, the condition is more common in the following individuals:

  • Pregnant Women
  • Iron/Zinc Deficient Children
  • People With Mental Disorders

Pica may lead to significant and perhaps fatal problems like:

  • Inflammation of the stomach
  • Damage to the digestive tract
  • Malnutrition
  • Toxicity

9. Other Eating Disorders

  • Orthorexia: the primary symptom of this eating disorder is a preoccupation with consuming healthy meals. It is not recognised as an official ailment by healthcare experts.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): a person with OSFED exhibits some of the symptoms of bulimia or anorexia but does not fit the diagnostic criteria for either illness.
  • Unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED): a condition in which a person does not match the criteria for any specific eating disorder yet exhibits symptoms and psychological distress.
  • Purging Disorder: Patients often utilise purging activities to regulate their weight or shape, such as vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise. They do not, however, binge.
  • Night Eating Disorder: Individuals with this condition regularly overeat. It leads to eating more before and after sleeping. 
  • Laxative abuse: It is not officially an eating disorder. Laxative abuse is detrimental to health. One overdoes it to lose weight and become slimmer.
  • Excessive exercise: Some individuals may engage in excessive activity to burn calories and achieve harmful weight reduction.

Treatment for Eating Disorder

The risk of physical health issues and psychological illnesses such as sadness and anxiety increases in eating disorders. People suffering from eating problems should get therapy as soon as possible. 

The kind of eating problem that a person has, dictates the sort of therapy given to them. So. persons undergo one or more of the following types of treatment in their lifetime:

  • Psychotherapy, including family counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, is integral to recovery (CBT). According to research, CBT can help people control these unhealthy habits and reason with themselves, ultimately improving their preexisting condition. 
  • Pharmacological interventions: antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers, dietary interventions etc
  • Care and monitoring.

Suppose a person has reason to believe that a loved one is suffering from an eating problem. In that case, they should urge them to seek medical attention. Likewise, someone suffering from depression or anxiety should seek psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment by experts. 

Treatment strategies are customised to meet the specific requirements of each patient. You will most likely have a team of professionals assisting you, including physicians, nutritionists, nurses, and therapists, to name a few possibilities. The following therapies are possible:

  • Psychotherapy may carry on an individual, group, and family basis. However, when it comes to individual therapy, cognitive-behavioural techniques assist you in identifying and changing negative and unhelpful thinking. 
  • Nutritional guidance is available. The advice and assistance of doctors, nurses, and counsellors will help you eat well to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilisers, may treat various types of eating disorders. The medicines may also assist with the despair, common in those who suffer from food addictions.

Some persons who suffer from severe eating disorders may need hospitalisation or therapy in a residential treatment facility. Residence-based treatment programs provide both accommodation and treatment services in one location.


To conclude, eating disorders are not as simple to grasp as they sound. They result from a combination of environmental, biological, societal, and psychological elements. In particular, adolescents and teenagers admire and appreciate the trends set by celebrities to the extent that they begin practising these in their daily lives. This action somehow, knowingly or unknowingly, crosses the thin line between what’s on the reel and what’s real.

Another factor that significantly affects eating habits is sexual orientation. The urge to align oneself to the general characteristics of gender plays a vital role in this context. However, it may threaten your health once it exceeds uncontrollably. Just know, it is not only about looking great but also about having a healthy weight. 

Hence, if you find any of your loved ones exhibiting traits related to eating disorders, talk to them. However, it is better to seek a counsellor’s help to get the best possible results. 

About the Author

I, Dr. Poonam have 3+ years of experience in the field of Medicine. Currently serving as a Resident Physician at HealthifyMe, I have worked with premier hospitals such as Manipal Hospital, Bangalore as a Resident in Plastic and Reconstructive surgery and Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital, Chennai as a Medical Officer. I aspire to put my knowledge in medicine to use in providing healthcare and fitness services to people and help enhance my abilities in meeting the ever-growing healthcare needs.

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