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Eating Disorders: An Overview of Potential Killers

By Martha Michael

Eating Disorders: An Overview of Potential Killers

From Adele’s openness about postpartum depression to Selena Gomez discussing her panic attacks, many public figures have made their mental health struggles an open book. Some celebrities have shared their battles with eating disorders, which has helped more people see the signs and comprehend the prevalence of issues related to food. Singer Demi Lovato has talked about her struggle with episodes of bingeing and actor Portia de Rossi is open about her history with anorexia nervosa.

And of course, there’s the tale of singer Karen Carpenter, whose 1983 death at age 32 brought eating disorders into the open. Her tragedy sparked widespread research and attention to the field, leading to much of what we know today.

An Overview of Eating Disorders

There are several million people living with eating disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The organization defines various forms of eating disorders as “behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.”

When it goes too far, disordered eating can have a physical, psychological and social impact on people. When individuals suffer from an insatiable appetite or compulsive tendencies to restrict or avoid food intake, it can result in serious health issues. Malnutrition and purging can lead to medical complications and even become fatal.

Binge eating or purging can result in:

  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Menstrual period cessation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Heartburn and reflux
  • Intolerance to cold
  • Bloating and constipation
  • Bone loss
  • Depression and irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Fatigue

Despite the negative outcomes, people can get caught in a cycle of starvation and overeating. Sometimes eating disorders occur with other psychiatric problems such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substance abuse

What Types of Eating Disorders Are There?

Approximately 28 million Americans either currently struggle with an eating disorder or have dealt with it in the past, says an article in Healthline. Most people know there are disorders related to food, but the two most widely known -- anorexia and bulimia -- are not the only kinds of eating disorders that exist.

Just as two people with an eating disorder do not necessarily have the same cause, the symptoms may differ as well. Causes from mental illness to childhood trauma contribute to the types of eating disorder a person is struggling to overcome.

Here’s a look at some of them.

Binge Eating Disorder

Characterized by chronic overeating, people with binge eating disorder can feel out of control. The most common eating disorder, it accounts for nearly half of all mental food-related health issues reported by Americans.

Binge eating typically involves:

  • Eating more than others in a specific time period
  • Eating compulsively and without much control
  • Overeating at least once a week for a period of several months
  • Anger at oneself for bingeing

Bulimia Nervosa

Similar to binge eating disorder, bulimia causes an individual to eat a large amount of food. What they consume may be a part of their regular diet, but often a bulimic person chooses to binge something they don’t normally eat. What makes them different from a binge eater is that a person with bulimia gets caught in a cycle of overeating and getting so full that they become fixated on their calorie intake and a fear of gaining weight, so they purge the food by vomiting.

Many who have struggled with bulimia have also suffered from the medical side effects of purging, including:

  • Eroding tooth enamel
  • Swelling in the salivary glands
  • Inflamed and sore throat
  • Hormonal changes
  • Acid reflux
  • Dehydration
  • Irritated gut

Anorexia Nervosa

Women are more likely to develop anorexia nervosa than their male counterparts, and symptoms typically show up during adolescence or early adulthood.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Fear of weight gain
  • Lack of desire to maintain a normal weight
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Denial about weight loss
  • Self-esteem strongly affected by body image

Anorexic people aren’t necessarily underweight, particularly in the case of atypical anorexia. The criteria for an anorexia diagnosis sometimes include symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. They may be preoccupied by their relationship with food and feel uncomfortable eating in front of others.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Similar to anorexia, symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder can resemble OCD, says an article by the Mayo Clinic. It often results in repetitive behaviors such as checking their appearance for defects they may -- or may not -- have.

People with body dysmorphia focus on flaws and wrestle with feelings of shame and embarrassment because they have an imperfect perception of their body image. Even if they were previously bulimic but stopped eating and purging, or gained weight after years of anorexia, they may have an unrealistic view of their size.

Symptoms include:

  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Preoccupation with appearance
  • Seeking reassurance about their looks
  • Frequent cosmetic procedures
  • Avoiding social activities

Who Is at Risk of an Eating Disorder?

Anyone can suffer from disordered eating or develop a more serious condition beyond the desire to lose weight. A number of factors play a role in who develops an eating disorder, according to the nonprofit National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD. When calculating a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder, experts consider genetic heritability the greatest contributor. Your body type, ethnicity, or occupation can play a part in the risk of developing food-related disorders.

Large-Sized People

While approximately 9 percent of the population is affected by eating disorders during their lifetime, fewer than 6 percent of those diagnosed are considered underweight by medical standards. People with larger bodies have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder and the reverse is also true -- those with eating disorders often experience weight gain. Despite these facts, larger individuals are less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than someone with a normal to small body.


Excessive exercising is a problem among athletes and they’re more likely to screen positive for an eating disorder. An article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders cites data from a study of competitive athletes, mostly white females between 13 and 24 years old. More than 86 percent met the criteria for an eating disorder, but only 2.5 percent sought treatment.

BIPOC Individuals

Men and women who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, or BIPOC, are less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than an individual who is white. Doctors often fail to ask BIPOC patients about symptoms related to disordered eating. Hispanic individuals are more likely to suffer from bulimia than non-Hispanics, and Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely to show symptoms of bulimia than white teenagers.

Members of the Armed Forces

Bulimia nervosa is the most common form of eating disorder among members of the military. When 3,000 female members of the military were surveyed, more than half of respondents showed signs of an eating disorder. Body dysmorphic disorder is rampant among both males and females in the military. While it affects only 1-3 percent of the general population, 13 percent of men and 21.7 percent of women in the military have body dysmorphia. A study of females in the Marine Corps shows that many of them are dissatisfied with their bodies and report past experiences with symptoms of disordered eating.

Finding Help

If you or a loved one are suffering from symptoms of an eating disorder, you can reach out to ANAD by calling (888) 375-7767 or visit You can also find a local 12-step group for people with eating disorders at

There is a greater understanding of the challenges faced by people with eating disorders and the need for better screening and treatment options. Keeping the discussion alive is one solution and it’s happening, thanks to public figures who speak out about their battles with disordered eating such as Jane Fonda and Lady Gaga.

The public has read tabloid accounts and celebrity blogs about people from Karen Carpenter and Princess Diana to the present. Extending the discussion to friends and family members who are in the throes of an eating disorder is one way to turn the page on this widespread problem.

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