What is an Eating Disorder?

The DSM-5 describes eating disorders as persistent mental disturbances with which patients obsess about food, causing negative physical, social, and psychological effects. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use the DSM-5 to diagnose and design treatment plans for a variety of mental illnesses, including eating disorders.

The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 30 million people in America right now will struggle with some type of eating disorder in their lifetimes. Although anyone can develop an eating disorder, women have higher rates of these disorders. Of those 30 million Americans, about 20 million are women.

Most patients who develop eating disorders also have co-existing mental illnesses. The most common of these are generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance addiction, and panic disorder. Patients may also suffer from low self-esteem.

If you or someone you love may have an eating disorder, it’s vital to seek help. Without treatment, the symptoms can cause severe problems for a person’s physical health.

Types of Eating Disorders

The DSM-5 provides diagnostic criteria for six types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Rumination disorder
  • Pica
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
  • Binge Eating Disorder

These disorders all cause patients to think so much about eating-related activities that it impacts their daily lives. However, the symptoms for each eating disorder vary widely. Below are some of the symptoms for each type of eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Severely restricting calories
  • Excessive exercising
  • Distorted body image
  • Rapid weight loss or inability to gain weight appropriately
  • Fear of becoming “fat,” even when the patient is underweight

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Binge eating followed by purging
  • Binging constitutes eating an unusually large amount of food in two hours with no control
  • Patients purge by either fasting, excessive exercise, induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or other weight-loss medications
  • The cycle occurs at least once per week for three months
  • Unhealthy body image

Rumination Disorder

  • Chewing and spitting out food repeatedly
  • Symptoms do not occur because of a gastrointestinal disorder
  • Patients repeat the behavior for at least one month
  • Not part of another eating disorder


  • Craving and eating non-food substances
  • The substances are not part of cultural medicine or development (such as a child putting toys in his mouth)

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

  • Restricting the amount and types of food one eats
  • Disturbs a person’s physical or mental health
  • Unlike anorexia, the symptoms are not tied to body image or fear of gaining weight

Binge Eating Disorder

  • Frequent binging episodes in which patients eat an amount of food that is certainly larger than mentally healthy people would eat
  • At least one binge per week for at least three months

We discuss these symptoms in more detail in the section below.

Causes of Eating Disorders

As with many mental illnesses, the specific causes of eating disorders are not always clear. Typically, patients develop these issues due to a combination of biological and emotional differences.

Some research suggests that certain genetic factors may play a role in the development of eating disorders. Sometimes, this causes eating disorders to run in families. Furthermore, shifts in a person’s brain chemistry may cause these symptoms.

Poor mental health makes a person more susceptible to eating disorders as well. People with low self-esteem, for example, may feel the need to change their bodies through extreme measures, leading to eating disorders. People who others would describe as “perfectionists,” and those who demonstrate impulsive behaviors are also more likely to struggle with disordered eating.

Eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders, classes, and ethnicities. However, young women in their 20s and teenage girls experience higher rates of eating disorders than their male counterparts.

Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. The American Psychiatric Association first added the diagnosis to the DSM-5 in 2013. Before that, patients with this disorder received more general diagnoses.

When people with binge eating disorder binge, it is not like they eat a slice of cake at a party. Instead, these episodes last about two hours and can include eating a whole cake and then some. To qualify as a binge, the event must consist of three or more of the following characteristics:

  • Quicker eating than normal
  • Guilt, depression, or disgust follow the binge
  • Eating until the patient is uncomfortable
  • Hiding the eating because of embarrassment or shame
  • Eating even when one is not hungry

The binges must occur at least once per week for three months, according to the DSM-5. Unlike people with bulimia nervosa, patients with binge eating disorder do not overcompensate with purging episodes.

Binge Eating Disorder Treatment & Recovery

Like with many mental illnesses, patients who show signs of binge eating disorder often feel ashamed of their symptoms. The culture surrounding weight loss and dieting can make overweight people with binge eating disorder feel particularly depressed and unworthy of treatment.

It’s essential for all people to know that patients with eating disorders of any kind need and deserve treatment. Furthermore, several options can bring hope to people with binge eating disorder. Therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes can all help.

Therapy options for binge eating disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and individual psychotherapy. Some professionals also host group sessions for people with this disorder.

The FDA recently approved lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse) as a treatment for certain patients with binge eating disorder. This medication for eating disorders can create dependency. Doctors only prescribe it if the benefits outweigh such risks, such as in the case of severe binge eating disorder. Psychiatrists may also suggest antidepressants or other medications to help with co-occurring mental disorders.

Although people with binge eating disorder should seek professional help, specific changes at home can facilitate recovery, including:

  • Avoiding fad diets
  • Connecting with friends and family
  • Eating breakfast
  • Staying active
  • And keeping trigger foods out of the home

Eating Disorder Treatment Centers

Eating disorders are severe and can threaten lives. If you or someone you love shows symptoms of any of these disorders, it’s vital to seek help immediately. You do not have to do this alone.

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding eating disorders keeps many people from seeking help for fear of judgment. Caring professionals do not pass judgment on patients with any disorder, including eating disorders.

LifeStance Health treatment centers will help you with the kindness and compassion you need for recovery. Experienced professionals will evaluate your symptoms and recommend treatment options based on your needs.

There’s no shame in asking for help. Instead, you will find hope and healing at LifeStance Health.