An eating disorder is more than just an unusual eating pattern. It's a serious mental health condition that can become life threatening without intervention. And it's more common than you may think. An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the US will develop an eating disorder during their lifetime.
With potential causes like genetics and environmental factors, eating disorders can happen to anyone at any point. Here are the six most common eating disorders and how to get help if you or someone you know struggles with disordered eating behaviors. No matter how strong you are, you don't need to take on this alone.
Eating disorders can take many forms
Anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing followed by compensation like vomiting or excessive exercise) are two of the most commonly known eating disorders, but there are many different types. Someone can also have disordered eating behaviors (like obsessively counting calories or categorizing each type of food as "good" or "bad") without meeting the criteria for a diagnosis.
According to the the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders can fall into the following categories:
- Anorexia Nervosa -- self-starvation
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder -- having an obsession with viewing the body in an imaginary way, the person suffering often sees themselves in a mirror as bigger than they actually are
- Bulimia Nervosa -- bingeing large amounts of food, followed by a pattern of compensating like vomiting, over exercising or using laxatives
- Binge Eating Disorder -- eating large amounts of food with feelings of loss of self control and guilt
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder -- restricting or avoiding certain foods to the point where someone can't meet their nutritional needs
- Other or Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder -- if someone meets some of the symptoms of a categorized eating disorder or displays other behaviors that cause negative emotional or physical effects
It's important to know that anyone can have an eating disorder, even though they are stereotypically tied to young, straight and white females. Eating disorders can happen to anyone at any age, regardless of sex, gender, race or sexual orientation.
It is also a misconception that someone has to be thin or "skinny" to be diagnosed with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits. The distinguishing factor is not how much someone weighs, but the manner in which their relationship with food or body image impacts their daily lives. Eating disorders are just as concerning and harmful for someone with a larger body as someone with a smaller one.
What can lead to an eating disorder?
Eating disorders can be triggered by a number of complex factors. According to the National Eating Disorders Association those can include "a combination of long-standing behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social factors."
Eating disorders are not a "choice," and it's hard to pinpoint exact causes, which have roots in genetics, emotional health and social environment.
Some common experiences known to trigger eating disorders, according to NEDA, include:
Bullying: Whether online, on social media or in person, bullying is a major trigger for many people. Whether in real life or online, even just one encounter with a bully can affect someone for the rest of their life.
Comments from others: Any type of comment, about someone's body, weight or appearance can be a trigger. In a Variety interview, pop megastar Taylor Swift recalled the first time she was on the cover of a magazine. "And the headline was like, 'Pregnant at 18?' And it was because I had worn something that made my lower stomach look not flat. So I just registered that as a punishment."
Perfectionism: A major risk factor for eating disorders is perfectionism or someone with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionists often place extreme amounts of pressure on themselves to be perceived in a certain way.
A history of anxiety: Research has shown that those with a history of an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Weight stigma and societal or media pressure: Society has consistently praised an "ideal body image." This norm says, especially for women, that the thinner you are, the more beautiful and attractive people will find you. This harmful image, especially prevalent in social media, is also tied to media norms that place immense pressure on women and teenage girls to look sexy. This type of objectification of women's bodies is also one of the driving factors behind harmful attitudes that are tied to high rates of violence and sexual abuse against women.
Trauma: If someone experiences trauma that's left untreated or unresolved, it can be a driving factor in an eating disorder. Studies have shown a strong link between bulimia and binge eating disorder, specifically in someone who's experienced trauma. One likely cause is that someone who's experienced trauma feels the need to control something in their life when everything else feels out of control.
How to navigate the media to help protect yourself from body shame
When you scroll through social media images or see people on TV or in the movies, it's natural to compare yourself with others. But just because that's a natural instinct, doesn't mean you don't have control over what you see.
Swift mentions that when she was healing from her disordered eating, she found people like Jameela Jamil (an actress and leader in the body positive space) and Brene Brown helpful for navigating shame, especially as it relates to body image.
If you follow accounts that praise unhealthy and unrealistic body image, unfollow or "mute" them from your feed so you don't see them. Find and follow more body-positive people like Jamil, Lizzo and Katie Sturino, among many others.
How to get help
If you think you may have an eating disorder, it's important to reach out for help. If you're not sure if you need help, the National Eating Disorder Association has an online screening tool that can help you get clarity around if you should seek professional help. You can also contact their helpline if you need to talk to someone.
Treatment for an eating disorder usually involves a number of approaches, including nutritional and psychological counseling. Treatment options will address the physical and medical symptoms, as well as the other personal factors that could be contributing to it.
For more information on how to get help and treatment options, visit the National Eating Disorder Association.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.