Types of Eating Disorders in Adults

NYU Langone doctors are familiar with the different types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. In addition, many people suffer from symptoms related to eating that are not necessarily attributed to one of these conditions. These people may also benefit from treatment.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, often called anorexia, is an eating disorder in which a person maintains a weight that is significantly below average for his or her age and height. People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They are typically obsessed with food and have a distorted body image, perceiving that they are “fat,” even when they are underweight.

To stay underweight, people with anorexia may starve themselves or eat sparsely and infrequently. They may purge food by vomiting or using laxatives, or they may exercise intensely. Often, people with anorexia do not recognize that these actions are unhealthy or that their perception of their own body is distorted.

Anorexia may be about more than eating or weight. It is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional problems, perfectionism, and a desire for control. A person with anorexia often equates self-worth with weight. The cycle of self-starvation can become extremely difficult to interrupt after it begins, in part due to brain changes that result from insufficient nutrition.

Anorexia often develops during adolescence and is diagnosed mostly in girls and women, although 1 in 10 people diagnosed with the condition is male. People with anorexia commonly have other mental disorders, such as mood and anxiety disorders or problems with drug abuse or addiction.

Symptoms may include a bluish discoloration of the fingers due to a lack of oxygen. People with anorexia may also have hair that thins, breaks, or falls out, and they may experience fatigue or insomnia. Dizziness or fainting, intolerance of cold, low libido, irritability, mood changes, and the absence of menstruation in women may also occur.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, is a type of eating disorder in which a person engages in episodes of bingeing—during which he or she eats a large amount of food—and then purges, or tries to get rid of the extra calories. Examples of purging include self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise, such as running on a treadmill for hours.

Binge eating is often done in private. Because most people with bulimia are of average weight or even slightly overweight, it may not be readily apparent to others that something is wrong.

Bulimia often begins in the late teens or early adulthood and is diagnosed mostly in women. People with bulimia may have other mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. They may also have a history of drug or alcohol abuse and self-injurious behavior.

Symptoms may include discolored or stained teeth, calluses on the back of the hands or knuckles from self-induced vomiting, and swelling in the cheeks or jaw area. A person with bulimia may experience frequent weight fluctuation, and women with this condition may have irregular menstrual cycles. Bulimia can also cause people to experience mood changes and irritability, think constantly about food and weight, and have difficulty concentrating.

Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorder eat unusually large amounts of food often and in secret but do not necessarily attempt to get rid of calories after the food is consumed. People with the condition may be embarrassed or feel guilty about binge eating, but their compulsion prevents them from stopping.

These people can be average weight, overweight, or obese. They may have other mental health disorders, such as depression or substance abuse problems. Many binge eaters have trouble coping with anger, sadness, boredom, worry, and stress. The condition is diagnosed in women slightly more often than in men.

Binge eating disorder often has no physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms that may or may not be apparent to others include depression, anxiety, or shame or guilt about the amount of food eaten. Frequent dieting without weight loss is another symptom of binge eating disorder.

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