What Are Eating Disorders? Identifying The Most Common Diagnoses

By Steven Finkelstein

Updated May 19, 2020

Reviewer Aaron Dutil

What are eating disorders? You have likely come across this term before, but you might not know the accepted medical definition. You also may not know what the most common sorts of these disorders are. In this article, we'll examine some of the more prevalent diagnoses, and we'll get into the history of eating disorders and some of their causes.

The History Of Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders Are More Common Than You Think
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Most people think of eating disorders as something that have come into being relatively recently, but in reality, nothing is further from the truth. Eating disorders were reported as early as the 12th century in the Western world when Saint Catherine of Siena fasted for extended periods as part of what she called a "spiritual denial of self." The notion of not eating for long amounts of time to get closer to God or to feel more spiritual is not uncommon, but in medical terms, what Saint Catherine was doing could be classified as anorexia, an eating disorder.

In 1973, the author Hilde Bruch published a book that gained much infamy for the case studies that it contained. The title of it was Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Person Within. It made the public much more aware of some of the more common types of eating disorders, and it was at that time that many more cases began to be reported that had happened previously. This is not to say that fewer cases existed before the 1970s. What is much more likely is that they were being reported less up until that point both by patients and doctors.

Picky Eating Disorders

There have also long been eating disorders in children that have been reported, such as what was once known as picky eating disorder. This term is not accepted by the medical community, though there is such a thing as ARFID. ARFID means avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. It is a condition where a person only has a few foods that they eat, which they deem to be safe, while they shun all others. This is a particularly dangerous condition, because if an individual only eats a few select foods, then it is extremely difficult for them to get the nutrition that they need.

In the case of ARFID, someone will feel that they might die or something dire might happen to them if they so much as try a new food that is outside of their comfort zone. It is theorized that for most people who have this disorder, a single traumatic event from their childhood might have led them to be the way that they are. Possibly they almost choked on a certain kind of food, or there was a similar incident. It can be very challenging for doctors and therapists to help someone who has ARFID, but new strategies are continually being developed. Now, let's go over some of the other eating disorders that it's possible for someone to have.

Binge Eating Disorders

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The term "binge eating disorder" refers to a specific disorder that you might develop. Anyone can have it, regardless of gender, age, social background, etc. With this condition, those who have it have recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food at one sitting, more than would be considered healthy. The person feels a sense of shame or guilt during and after they do this. They feel as though they've lost control. They do not normally purge after they binge, though, which is a hallmark of bulimia.

Someone who has binge eating disorder is locked into a destructive cycle, and their relationship with food could not be considered healthy. They often struggle with their physical appearance, and their self-esteem is usually quite low. There are many different ways that you can potentially know that someone has this disorder, but weight fluctuation and a fixation on their body are a couple of the more common symptoms.


Bulimia is when a person binges, meaning they eat large quantities of food, and then they purge, which means that they induce vomiting so that they can eat more. It was reported as early as the Middle Ages when the wealthy would engage in the practice so that they could eat more during feasts. It seemed at the time like the height of decadence, as the individuals belonging to this social class could afford to eat lavish banquets until they were full, purge, and then eat again, while peasants often scrounged just to come up with simple meals for their families. In reality, though, the glamor was exaggerated, since the individuals who partook in these practices risked many health problems.

Bulimia in the modern era is every bit as harmful as it was back then. Those who do it are prone to mood swings and depression. They often exercise excessively to try and reconcile their unhealthy behavior to themselves. They can experience chronic sore throat from the purging, as well as serious dental problems. Bloating, heartburn and indigestion are all possibilities as well.


Eating Disorders Are More Common Than You Think
Learn How To Spot The Signs - Speak With A Licensed Therapist Online Today.

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We already spoke briefly about anorexia, but it is another of the more common eating disorders that is widespread in the U.S., as over 200,000 new cases are reported each year. Anorexia is marked by a person not eating as much as they should maintain a healthy weight. They will often starve themselves for extended periods, or they will only eat a couple of bites at mealtimes to keep up appearances. As is the case with some individuals with bulimia, they will usually exercise constantly to try and maintain a particular body image with which they are obsessed.

When someone has anorexia, they are putting themselves in real danger, especially if the condition is left unchecked for a long time and a case of advanced malnutrition develops. Someone with anorexia is not going to be getting enough of the nutrients that their body needs to power it. They will likely get fatigued easily, and they may faint on occasion. They may get constipated or have abdominal pain. Irregular heart rhythms are another possibility, as is low blood pressure. Dehydration can occur, and they can develop an intolerance to cold because there is no body fat to act as a cushion against harsh lower temperatures.

What Causes Some Of These Eating Disorders?

As for what causes these and other eating disorders, there are many reasons, but one of the most significant theories has to be societal pressure to appear thin and perfect. Eating disorders in men are probably underreported, as some feel like this is a problem that disproportionately affects women. Any gender can be affected by it, though, and it is not unique to any particular segment of the population.

Bullying because of weight has always been a part of the young adult experience, so it should be no surprise that eating disorders often develop when someone is in their adolescence. The invention of social media seems to be yet another way that young people can potentially be cruel to each other so that for some, there seems to be no respite from taunting and name-calling. If someone sees an idealized, ultra-thin version of what someone is "supposed to look like" in a magazine ad or to walk the catwalk at a fashion show, then they may become anorexic or bulimic as a result of that. It can be extremely challenging for a young person to come to terms with their own body and be okay with who they are.

Sometimes, it can be a family member like a parent who is part of the problem. When that happens, it is particularly heartbreaking. Parents, siblings, and other relatives should be a part of a young person's support network, not the problem that is causing them to feel insecure. An offhand or off-color remark at the dinner table might be all that it takes to set a young person down a dangerous path to binging, purging, or self-starvation.

How Can You Tell If You Have An Eating Disorder?

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If you feel like you might have an eating disorder, then it can be helpful to take a "Do I Have an Eating Disorder" quiz of the type that you can find online. Several websites feature them, and most of them only take a few minutes. They're in an easy multiple-choice format, and at the end, there is an assessment of whether you are likely to have an eating disorder or not based on your answers. If you take a few of them and the results are the same, then you should probably see a doctor or a therapist. You might be a little embarrassed, but you don't need to be. Therapists and doctors are there to help you, and the most important thing is for you to get yourself well.

What Happens If You Have One?

If it turns out that you have an eating disorder, then there are various possible solutions to the problem. Talk therapy is one of the more common first steps, though you may also have to speak to a doctor or a behaviorist. You'll need to identify what it is that's causing you to feel the way that you do and to engage in destructive activities. Once you know what your triggers are, such as what is causing you to binge or purge, then you can work on distancing yourself from those parts of your life or finding other ways to cope that are healthier for you.

You don't have to feel ashamed about what is taking place. Society places a lot of pressure on one's physical appearance, and eating disorders are more common than you might suspect. Anyone might have struggled with one, even someone like a celebrity who you may idolize.

Do You Need To Speak To Someone About Your Eating Habits?

If you think you might have an eating disorder, but you don't feel ready to tell a parent or a doctor yet, then you can contact us at BetterHelp. One of our qualified mental health professionals can speak to you about your options, and you can decide what your best move is.

Eating disorders have a long history, but they are still prevalent today, despite ongoing educational efforts. As long as the pressure exists to have a particular body type, it's not likely we'll ever see the last of them. However, there are plenty of supportive individuals in the medical field who can assist you as you try to establish a better relationship with food. If you have one of the conditions that we described, then let them help you. The longer you hold out, the more damage you may be doing to yourself.

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