A Guide To Understanding Eating Disorders

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated November 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

If you are experiencing a crisis related to an eating disorder or would like further resources, reach out to the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767 from Monday through Friday, 9 am to 9 pm CT. 

Eating disorders are common mental illnesses worldwide that can cause maladaptive thought patterns surrounding food, eating, body type, and weight. If you or someone you love might be living with an eating disorder, it can be valuable to understand the symptoms of these conditions and how to find support. Below is a comprehensive guide to eating disorders to keep in mind.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Eating Disorders Are Serious, But Treatable

What Are Eating Disorders?

Around five to ten million women and one million men experience eating disorders in the US. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses related to eating behaviors that can adversely impact functioning in multiple areas of life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). 

Individuals with eating disorders often experience body image difficulties, including body dysmorphia. This difficulty with body image may lead to a desire to lose weight or difficulty seeing oneself realistically. In some cases, eating disorders lead to weight loss or gain. However, body size and shape are not necessarily undisputable indicators of an eating disorder. 

Anyone can be diagnosed with an eating disorder, but it may be most common in the following populations: 

  • Women 

  • Those who struggle with a lack of control 

  • Survivors of abuse 

  • Overachievers

  • Individuals whose parents hyper-focused on their weight as children 

  • Someone experiencing the loss of a loved one 

  • People with anxiety or depression 

  • Someone from a family that values thinness or "fitness" 

  • Someone who is the genetic relative of someone with an eating disorder

  • Someone with low self-esteem

  • An individual going through a significant life change, such as moving 

  • Someone experiencing issues with their hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls hunger and eating behaviors 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Medical Implications Of Eating Disorders 

Eating disorders can be dangerous and may lead to severe illness or death. For example, purging may be associated with a rupture in the esophagus. When an individual loses significant weight, they may develop a heart condition, lose their menstrual period, or break bones. If you suspect that you or someone you love has an eating disorder, seek professional support. Other potential complications of an eating disorder can include the following: 

  • Lack of adequate nutrition

  • Harm to the heart

  • Gastrointestinal conditions or symptoms 

  • Weakened bones

  • Reduced enamel of the teeth and gums 

  • Lack of energy and increased fatigue 

  • Anemia

  • Kidney stones

  • Abdominal pain and bloating

  • Gallbladder disease

  • Type II diabetes 

  • Bone loss

  • Sleep disruption

Types Of Eating Disorders

Below are some of the most common eating disorders. However, note that other eating disorders may also be diagnosed, depending on symptoms. Not all eating disorders are focused on weight loss. 

Anorexia Nervosa 

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which an individual withholds food from themselves, eats less than is healthy, and restricts eating patterns in an attempt to lose weight or control body image. In some cases, individuals living with anorexia may try to exercise to keep calories off, as well. Anxiety after eating can be a symptom of anorexia, as the individual may feel guilt or distress from consuming food. Anorexia often leads to losing weight excessively, having low nutrition, and experiencing distressing physical and emotional symptoms. 

Bulimia Nervosa 

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder marked by bingeing periods followed by purging (vomiting). These individuals might also use medical aids like laxatives, enemas, and water pills to offset a binge. Exercise may also be used after bingeing. Binge eating is often defined as eating a significant amount of food in a short period. 

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) 

Binge eating disorder involves periods of bingeing on food, not followed by purging behaviors. Binge eating disorder may also not be accompanied by a preoccupation with weight, although an individual may experience shame from weight gain if it occurs. With this condition, an individual may believe they cannot stop bingeing and cannot control their eating. After a binge, they may experience significant guilt or shame. 

Signs You Or Someone You Love Might Have An Eating Disorder 

Below are a few potential signs of eating disorders, not limited to one diagnostic category: 

  • Frequently talking about losing weight

  • Hyper-focus on one's body, weight, or physical characteristics 

  • Skipping meals or coming up with excuses not to eat 

  • Tooth enamel loss due to purging

  • Exercising more than appropriate

  • Noticing marks on fingers, fingernails, and knuckles from inducing vomiting

  • Hiding food or wrappers to hide a binge from others 

  • Suicidal thoughts or urges 

  • Guilt and shame after eating 

  • Using laxatives or water pills to promote weight loss

  • Taking part in online pro-anorexia or bulimia websites

  • Looking at the bodies of others online for "inspiration" 

  • Partaking in a restrictive diet

  • Isolating

  • Withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities 

  • Getting up during meals to use the bathroom to purge or avoid eating 

  • Feeding food to one's pets or throwing it away 

  • Wearing baggy clothing to hide one's body 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.


Ways To Cope With An Eating Disorder 

Seeking professional treatment for eating disorders may be the most effective way to experience symptom remission. However, you may use a few lifestyle changes or activities to reduce symptoms, including but not limited to the following. 


Write out the thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with the eating disorder and its symptoms. Studies show that journaling and other forms of expressive writing are associated with improved mental and physical health

Incorporate A Healthy Diet And Exercise Routine Into Your Days 

If you struggle with eating, working with a nutritionist to devise a plan may be helpful. In addition, a nutritionist or doctor can help you learn what a moderate and healthy level of exercise can be like. While going through this process, avoid weighing yourself or tracking your progress. 

Cut Down On Substances 

Alcohol causes disrupted sleep, and sleep disruption may be caused by some of the symptoms of eating disorders. 70% to 80% of people with eating disorders have substance use challenges, so work with a therapist if you struggle to control your substance intake. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Reduce Isolation 

To combat the emotional symptoms of an eating disorder, try to avoid isolating yourself and get together with friends and family. If you don't have a healthy social network, consider participating in local group activities to make new friends. You may also attend support groups for others with eating disorders.

Consider What You Do And Don't Have Control Over 

Control is often an aspect of eating disorders. To cope with these symptoms, list what you have control over and what you want to learn to cope with. Make a list of manageable steps to work toward and remove the items you can't control from the list.

Avoid Stressors 

If possible, avoid the situations, people, places, and ideas that cause stress, not including eating food. Identify situations that cause you to participate in disordered behaviors. Once you know what incites these symptoms, consider working with a professional to learn techniques to minimize stress levels.

Practice Healthy Social Behaviors 

Learn to express your feelings and let a trusted person know when you are experiencing distressing symptoms. In addition, consider the following tips: 

  • Learn techniques to be assertive and get your needs met.

  • Learn to tell a trusted person that you are thinking of acting BEFORE you act.

  • Learn the art of expressing yourself and asking for help when needed.

  • Consider what it would mean to set healthy boundaries and stick to them.

  • Learn when you are taking on too much and practice saying "no." 

  • Do not continue to partake in activities you don't want to partake in. 

Practice Self-Care 

Below are a few self-care decisions you might make for yourself: 

  • Schedule 30 to 60 minutes each day to focus on self-care. 

  • Start the day with coffee, a paper, a podcast, or another enjoyable activity. 

  • Go for a jog or do yoga to control your nervous system. 

  • Read a book.

  • Take a hot bath or shower.

  • Spend time in nature. 

  • Try meditation. 

  • Look into effective relaxation techniques for anxiety and stress. 

Eating Disorders Are Serious, But Treatable

Connect With A Professional 

Eating disorders commonly require professional treatment. Mental health professionals are trained to help people recover from these illnesses and find local resources. Still, some people experiencing disordered eating may struggle to reach out for in-person support. They might be ashamed of their behavior or feel nervous about discussing their symptoms with strangers. 

In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be a comfortable alternative to traditional therapy. Online therapy is often more convenient, as it can be attended from home. In addition, clients can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with their provider for a sense of control over their treatment. 

According to researchers in the field of mental health, online therapy has the potential to treat eating disorders effectively. A recent study showed no differences between in-person and online therapy regarding outcomes for individuals with bulimia. The study also demonstrated that online therapy is associated with higher rates of continued improvement post-treatment than traditional counseling.


Eating disorders can be challenging to cope with. However, these conditions are highly treatable with professional support. If you relate to the above symptoms, consider contacting a therapist online or in your area for support and guidance.

Healing from eating disorders is possible

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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