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Common Types of Eating Disorders

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What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, influenced by a range of factors. An eating disorder is an illness marked by irregular eating habits, distress about eating, and an obsession about body weight (Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; Eating Disorders Victoria n.d.d).

It is commonly observed that eating disorders are a combination of biological, psychological, environmental and socio-cultural factors (Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013).

Eating disorders create both considerable psychological impairments and stress, and wide-ranging serious medical complications, which have the ability to affect every major organ in the body (National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013).

Eating disorders are very serious, they have severe health complications and can even be fatal (National Institute of Mental Health 2016).

While eating disorders are particularly common among young women, anyone of any age, gender, or economic or cultural background can develop an eating disorder (National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013).

The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Australia

It is estimated that between 4 to 16% of the population suffers from an eating disorder. Due to the secretive nature of eating disorders, many cases are not reported and this number is likely to be higher (AIHW 2019; Sane Australia 2018; National Eating Disorder Collaboration 2013).

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness (The Butterfly Foundation 2019; Eating Disorder Hope 2018b).

Types of Eating Disorders

The following are the most common eating disorders, recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5).

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a disease characterised by having an obsessive fear of gaining weight, restricting food and water intake, and disturbance in self-perceived weight or body shape (Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; AIHW 2018; The Butterfly Foundation 2019).

Signs of Anorexia Nervosa
  • Severely restricting food intake;
  • Change in food preferences;
  • Emaciation (extreme thinness);
  • Decreased performance at school or work;
  • Losing a lot of weight in a short timeframe;
  • Distorted body image;
  • Depression;
  • Anxiety;
  • Rigid ‘black and white’ thinking about foods (e.g. good or bad foods);
  • Obsessive rituals around food;
  • Noticeable anxiety around mealtimes;
  • Repetitive and/or obsessive body-checking behaviours;
  • Making excuses not to eat or avoiding social situations involving food;
  • Mood swings;
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts;
  • Fear of being overweight even when severely underweight; and
  • Lethargy.

(Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; The Butterfly Foundation 2019; NIMH 2016; Eating Disorders Victoria n.d.a.)

The Effects of Anorexia Nervosa
  • Brain damage;
  • Multi-organ failure;
  • Loss of bone calcium;
  • Anaemia;
  • Depression;
  • Anxiety;
  • Lethargy;
  • Heart difficulties;
  • Fainting and/or dizziness;
  • Infertility;
  • Secretive eating and/or exercise behaviours;
  • Disturbance of menstrual periods;
  • Loss of libido;
  • Compromised immune system; and
  • Intestinal problems and/or abdominal pain.

(Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; The Butterfly Foundation 2019; Eating Disorders Victoria n.d.a.)

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is an illness associated with binge eating followed by behaviours to compensate for overeating, such as forced vomiting, excessive exercise, use of laxatives or diuretics (Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; The Butterfly Foundation 2019).

Signs of Bulimia Nervosa
  • Self-induced vomiting;
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, particularly after eating;
  • Fluctuations in weight;
  • Mood swings;
  • Depression;
  • Anxiety;
  • Food avoidance and/or dieting behaviour;
  • Laxative misuse;
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts;
  • Fasting;
  • Excessive exercise;
  • Secretive eating and/or exercise behaviours; and
  • Use of drugs, illicit, prescription and/or over the counter inappropriately for weight control.

(AIHW 2018; Eating Disorder Hope 2018a; National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013; The Butterfly Foundation 2019; American Psychiatric Association 2017).

The Effects of Bulimia Nervosa
  • Chronic sore throat, indigestion, heartburn and reflux;
  • Inflammation/rupture of oesophagus;
  • Stomach/intestinal ulcers;
  • Stomach rupture;
  • Irregular or slowed heartbeat and cardiac arrest;
  • Loss of libido;
  • Depression;
  • Lethargy;
  • Anxiety;
  • Gum disease and/or tooth decay;
  • Bowel issues;
  • Severe dehydration;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Disturbance of menstrual periods; and
  • Increased risk of infertility in men and women.

(The Butterfly Foundation 2019; American Psychiatric Association 2017; Eating Disorders Australia n.d.c.).

Binge Eating Disorder

A person will eat large amounts of food in a short time-frame. They may feel that their eating is out of control.

Signs of Binge Eating Disorder
  • A preoccupation with eating, food, body shape and weight;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Irritability;
  • Erratic behaviour;
  • Repeated episodes of binge eating;
  • An apparent loss of control when eating;
  • Eating rapidly;
  • Difficulty sleeping;
  • Increased isolation;
  • Feeling bloated, constipated and/or developing intolerances to food;
  • Anxiety;
  • Depression;
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts;
  • Expressing shame or guilt about eating;
  • Secretive eating behaviours; and
  • Increased sensitivity to questions about food.

(Sane Australia 2017; The Butterfly Foundation 2019; Eating Disorders Victoria n.d.b).

The Effects of Binge Eating Disorder
  • Osteoarthritis;
  • Obesity;
  • Cardiac arrest;
  • Anxiety;
  • Depression;
  • Lethargy;
  • Loss of libido;
  • Cardiovascular disease;
  • Hypertension;
  • Disturbance of menstrual periods; and
  • Chronic kidney problems or kidney failure;

(The Butterfly Foundation 2019; Eating Disorders Victoria n.d.b.; American Psychiatric Association 2017).

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED)

People suffering from this disorder may display characteristics of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, but do not meet the full criteria for diagnosis of one or more of these disorders (AIHW 2018; Sane Australia 2017).


Recovering from an eating disorder is notoriously difficult–research indicates that 20% of people with anorexia remain chronically ill for the long term–but it is possible (National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013).

Psychotherapy is vital for individuals with eating disorders to understand the thoughts, emotions and behaviours that trigger these disorders (American Psychiatric Association 2017). Recovery depends upon a combination of appropriate treatment and a high level of professional support and personal commitment (National Eating Disorders Collaboration 2013).

Treatment options include:
  • Psychological treatment;
  • Cognitive behaviour therapy;
  • Attending a clinic for eating disorders;
  • Seeing a dietician and receiving nutritional counselling; and
  • Medications (such as antidepressants).

(Butterfly Foundation 2019; American Psychiatric Association 2017; Eating Disorder Hope 2017)

Additional Resources Multiple Choice Questions Q1. The percentage of Australians living with eating disorders is between:
  • 6-14%.
  • 4-16%.
  • 40-60%.
  • 14-20%.
  • Q2. True or false: Secretive eating behaviours are signs of the three major eating disorders.
  • True.
  • False.
  • Q3. Which of the following is a sign of binge eating disorder?
  • Laxative misuse.
  • Severely restricting food intake.
  • Eating rapidly.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • References Author Ausmed Editorial Team

    Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile

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