Understanding Eating Disorders

By Lauren Krouse 

Our lives often revolve around food. We plan hangouts around what new restaurant to check out and bake desserts to show others love—but many of us also face intense pressure from family members, doctors, friends, ads, celebrities, and influencers to simultaneously achieve the “ideal” of a perfectly thin and toned body. 

In a culture where it’s all but impossible to escape the constant scroll of fad diets, photoshopped bodies, and high-intensity workout routines, you’re not alone if you’ve struggled with negative thoughts and feelings about your body or felt pressured to lose weight. Because of that culture—and how common talking down about our bodies is—it can be hard to know when you or someone you love is living with an eating disorder. 

Nearly one in 10 people of all genders, ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that can become life-threatening, but they are treatable and full recovery is possible with the right resources and support. 

If you’re worried about yourself or someone you love, you’re doing the right thing by taking potential signs seriously and learning more. Read on to start educating yourself and learn when and how to get the support you deserve.

Common Types of Eating Disorders

There are many types of eating disorders, and they can look very different in different people. Each one can impact anyone, no matter their body size or weight. The most common eating disorders are:

  • Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder involves repeated bouts of binge eating, during which you eat an uncomfortably high volume of food in a short period of time. It’s a painful cycle that often leads to crushing feelings of guilt and frustration, but you feel you can’t stop or control yourself.
  • Bulimia (bulimia nervosa). People with bulimia experience cycles of binge eating, but also cycles of “compensatory behaviors,” which is doctor-speak for making up for what you ate by forcing yourself to throw up, fasting, overexercising, or misusing medications such as laxatives. 
  • Anorexia (anorexia nervosa)Anorexia is a complex metabo-psychiatric disorder that may be caused by many factors. It’s strongly linked to genetics, but eating fewer calories than your body needs plus changes in your brain, mental health, and metabolism also play a role. People with anorexia severely limit how much they eat and may also feel terrified of gaining weight or “getting fat.” A subtype of anorexia called orthorexia can look like an obsession with wellness, “clean” or healthy eating, and compulsive exercise. 
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). ARFID is when you don’t take in all the nutrients your body needs because you avoid certain foods based on texture, smell, taste, or color; you’re afraid something bad could happen, often based on past experiences such as choking or food poisoning; or you simply aren’t interested in eating. 

It often starts in children or teens of all genders, although it is more common in boys and gender-nonconforming kids. It’s also more common in neurodivergent people, such as those with autism, ADHD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There’s no single cause of eating disorders. They can be triggered by a combination of biological, psychological, social, and cultural influences. Some of the most common risk factors  include: 

  • Family history, such as having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder or another mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, or problems with alcohol or drugs.
  • Dieting or taking in fewer calories than your body burns, such as trying to lose weight by cutting calories or not getting enough of the food you need due to intense athletic training, a growth spurt, or illness.
  • Idealizing thinness or feeling unsatisfied with your body image, such as linking your self-worth to your body size or weight, or struggling with the pressure to look a certain way.
  • Having an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety
  • Perfectionism—holding yourself to rigid and high expectations, and giving up after the slightest failure.
  • Inflexibility, or feeling like there’s only one right way to do things.
  • Facing weight stigma, such as being judged, bullied, or teased by others due to your appearance. 
  • Being LGBTQ or struggling with sexual or gender identity questions—especially in an unaccepting environment—can lead to dangerous behaviors aimed at changing yourself or your appearance to fit someone else’s mold.

Who Can Get an Eating Disorder?

There are a lot of ideas about what someone with an eating disorder looks like, but that can be deeply and dangerously misleading. It can mean you don’t get the help and support you deserve, because you don’t look or seem like you’re sick. 

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, no matter their age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, body shape, weight, income, or background. 

  • Less than 6 percent of people with eating disorders are underweight. You do not need to lose weight or be visibly thin to have an eating disorder, and no matter your size, the symptoms of an eating disorder are just as harmful and taxing on your body. 
  • Anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of people with eating disorders are boys or men. They’re most likely to develop binge eating disorder and more likely to die from anorexia, partly because people assume boys don’t get eating disorders so their diagnosis is delayed. 
  • Trans and nonbinary people are at least four times as likely as their cisgender counterparts to struggle with an eating disorder. 
  • Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens—particularly gay and bisexual boys and men—are at a higher risk of binging and purging than their heterosexual peers. 
  • People of color—Black, Hispanic, and Asian American teens and adults—face similar rates of eating disorders overall and higher rates of binge eating disorder than their white counterparts, but they’re less likely to be diagnosed or treated due to unfounded eating disorder stereotypes.
  • Jewish women, particularly those in the Orthodox community, may face a rate of eating disorders that’s double that of the general U.S. population. 
  • One in three teen boys and men and over half of teen girls and women in high school and college weight-class and aesthetic sports such as wrestling, rowing, horse racing, bodybuilding, gymnastics, dancing, swimming, and diving struggle with disordered eating, and can face a much higher risk of injury. 

When Do I Need to Get Help for an Eating Disorder?

It’s really common to wonder if you’re sick enough to deserve help, or to have no idea how to support a friend or family member who pushes you away when you bring up your concerns. The bottom line is that if you or someone in your life is worried about your health and well-being—or if you are worried about someone you love—now is the time to reach out for help or connect them to it

Eating disorders are a serious medical issue, because they can deprive the body of nutrients; seriously harm all organs, including the heart; and lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death—even when someone looks or seems OK. It’s important to take any and all signs of eating disorders very seriously. 

Like all medical conditions, eating disorders need to be diagnosed and treated by caring, knowledgeable professionals. There are effective treatments for eating disorders, recovery is possible, and it’s worth it. It’s important that anyone who needs treatment gets it.

You can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders helpline, which is run by licensed therapists who specialize in eating disorders and can connect you to the right support. 

Call 866-662-1235 or email info@allianceforeatingdisorders.com. The helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. If help is not immediately available, your call will be returned as soon as possible.

If you need help right now:

  • Text HEALING to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day. 
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. 

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.