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Common Eating Disorders & Treatment

Megan Bandy

June 17, 2021


Eating disorders are an incredibly common mental health issue impacting people of all ages, sizes, races, and genders. While they’re often depicted as a response to concern around weight gain or similar appearance-related issues, eating disorders are typically much deeper than that. Although fears and insecurities around appearance may contribute to disordered eating, eating disorders themselves are complex mental disorders caused by a variety of factors.

What is often left out of the conversation surrounding eating disorders is the incredible danger surrounding them. Eating disorders are the second-most fatal mental illnesses, behind opioid use disorder. The patterns of self-harm present in eating disorders are why proper recognition, diagnosis, and treatment are so vitally important to ensuring the long-term recovery of someone who experiences them. By learning more about the types of eating disorders, you can be equipped to identify symptoms in yourself and your loved ones so that treatment can be sought much more quickly to prevent lifelong harm.


Types of eating disorders

Though eating disorders are often depicted in one way in TV and movies, often showing symptoms associated mostly with anorexia nervosa, there are a variety of ways eating disorders can present themselves. These presentations are separated into types, though the lines may be blurred in some cases. Some of the most common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by serious restriction of food intake. This may include a severe preoccupation with weight and the practice of other behaviors to lose weight, like excessive exercise or purging.

Bulimia nervosa (sometimes referred to as “binge-purge disorder”) is characterized by episodes of binge-eating or excessive eating with little control and specific “purging” behaviors intended to compensate for food intake, like excessively exercising, fasting, or forced vomiting.

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by episodes of uncontrollable excessive eating. Unlike the bingeing associated with bulimia, these episodes are not followed by purging.

Eating disorders are not limited to the experiences and behaviors of the three specific types above. If you feel you have patterns of disordered eating, talk to your doctor about finding the best treatment for your thoughts and behaviors.



Signs of an eating disorder vary depending on the type, but overlapping symptoms may include:

  • Obsessive preoccupation with food and/or exercise
  • Distorted view of self physically and/or generally
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, particularly around meals
  • Restricting or avoiding eating
  • Irritability surrounding conversations about food habits, often due to shame or insecurity
  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight (particularly with anorexia or binge-eating disorder)

Other symptoms tend to align with the specific eating disorder. If you feel you’re experiencing patterns of disordered eating and/or thoughts about food are having impactful, negative consequences on your life, talk to a loved one, your doctor, or mental health professional. Getting help early is the key to effectively treating an eating disorder.


Statistics and prevalence

  • Nearly 10% of people in the U.S. will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. 
  • 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder.
  • Boys and men represent 25% of people with anorexia nervosa.
  • 97% of those with an eating disorder have at least one co-occurring condition.
  • Anorexia nervosa has the 2nd highest mortality rate of all mental disorders, behind opioid use disorder.
  • 28-83% of the risk for developing an eating disorder is through genetic heritability.


What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders develop due to a combination of genetic, psychological, and social factors in a person’s life. People who have the highest risk of developing an eating disorder are those with a family history of eating disorders. Some other factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders include:

  • Sociocultural expectations
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions
  • Family history (including other mental health conditions)
  • Certain personality traits, like perfectionism
  • Bullying
  • Dieting

No direct, specific cause has been identified in the development of eating disorders. Rather, many of these factors combine to lead to disordered eating patterns. One major contributing factor is the existence of other mental disorders.


Coexisting Conditions

While many mental health issues come with a risk for developing a coexisting disorder, eating disorders have a much higher prevalence of this than most. More than 97% of those with eating disorders have one or more coexisting conditions. Conditions commonly given as a dual diagnosis with eating disorders include:

  • Autism
  • Mood disorders, like major depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders (SUDs)
  • ADHD

Understanding the risks for a dual diagnosis and treating both (or all) present disorders is essential for effective treatment and recovery. Without effective treatment, eating disorders can come back and the physical toll they can have makes them much more dangerous than other mental disorders.

Physically, eating disorders can begin to cause issues like:

  • Dental problems
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of period in women
  • Constipation
  • Malnutrition

However, as eating disorders progress, so does the severity of physical symptoms. Years of prolonged, disordered eating can lead to major consequences, including:

Heart failure

Ruptured stomach

Esophageal rupture


Kidney failure

These medical issues (and others that aren’t mentioned) can and regularly lead to death in patients with eating disorders. Prevention of these issues is essential and only possible through effective treatment of the disorder.


Eating disorder treatment

Eating disorder treatment is not as straightforward as other mental health treatments. Eating disorders typically include months of involved, specific, food-related habits and obsessions that correspond to deeply complex thoughts and feelings. In many cases, eating disorders go unnoticed or untreated for months or years, which can make things much more complicated.

Over time, eating disorders can begin to feel like an addiction for people, in that the behaviors practiced become habitual and seem to satisfy an urge or craving that a person has. Though they haven’t been shown to work the same way as a substance use disorder, they can be similarly hard to treat because of the strong grip people usually have on the behaviors involved and the lack of desire many have to be treated.

This complexity of eating disorders, combined with the 97% likelihood of a separate, coexisting mental health disorder, means that eating disorder treatment requires the work of a trained specialist, rather than a general therapist or doctor. Treatment differs based on the type of eating disorder someone has, as well as what other existing conditions they may have and the severity of their circumstances. For those who are facing death and need immediate care, hospitals are qualified to treat the physical effects of an eating disorder, at least temporarily, and can connect someone to mental health care or recovery clinics. 

Inpatient Treatment

For those who aren’t in immediate danger, but are still experiencing severe symptoms and need intensive care, inpatient clinics are available to provide 24/7 treatment. These facilities can be costly, but they provide food, housing, counseling, health monitoring, and other necessary medications. This is a great option for someone who is harming themselves, is very physically unhealthy, or hasn’t responded to other forms of treatment. However, inpatient options can be difficult for some people, since it requires them to be away from friends and family, receive regular monitoring, and work closely with other people with the disorder, which can either help or hurt depending on the person.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment options are often the first and most popular option for treating eating disorders. When the disorder is caught early or someone is very willing to receive help, outpatient therapy can be incredibly effective. This option is also utilized for those transitioning out of higher levels of care. Outpatient treatment for eating disorders should be comprehensive and include help from mental health professionals, registered dieticians, and medical doctors. Mental health professionals will use forms of therapy to target the underlying mental health conditions, habits surrounding food or purging, and problems that have resulted because of the disorder in relationships, school, or work. Dietitians work with the individual to create a food plan that will balance their anxieties and ease them into more normal eating habits while optimizing their nutritional intake. Medical doctors can monitor health conditions related to the eating disorder to ensure that as recovery progresses, the body heals naturally or is treated medically. Dentists may also need to be involved in the medical portion of recovery, as teeth are often directly impacted by eating disorders and proper oral hygiene is essential to preventing more severe medical conditions.

Despite the complexity of eating disorders, they are treatable. While thoughts and feelings that accompany them may recur throughout someone’s life, with proper education, vigilance, and a healthy support system, they can avoid falling back into disordered eating and, instead, live amazing lives.


Eating disorders and substance use

Many people with eating disorders misuse opioids or other substances, either to cope with the emotional and physical pain of the disorder or as a means of losing weight and purging. More than 22% of people with an eating disorder are estimated to develop alcoholism or drug addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, respectively . However, nearly half of all people with an eating disorder have misused substances at some point.

Misusing substances can contribute to the physical damage that already accompanies eating disorders. For those with a dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and substance use disorder, proper treatment that addresses both issues is essential to ensuring long-term recovery. If someone is treated for one and not the other, the risk for recurrence is much higher.

If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in LouisianaMassachusettsNew JerseyNorth CarolinaOhio, and Washington.

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Our mission at Eleanor Health is to help people affected by eating disorders and other addictions live amazing lives. We deliver whole-person, comprehensive care and are passionate about transforming the quality, delivery, and accessibility of addiction & mental health treatment. Our actions are rooted in respect for each member's values, culture, and life experiences, and our commitment to their wellbeing is unwavering and without judgement.

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