What Are Common Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that are related to ongoing eating behaviors that negatively impact physical, mental and emotional health, affecting the individual’s ability to function in most, if not all, areas of life. Although they can develop later in life, eating disorders often begin in teenagers and young adults and affect people of every age, gender, sex, race, ethnicity and socio-economic group.

According to Dr. Tom Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “Recent research on eating disorders supports the proposition that these are serious mental disorders with significant morbidity and mortality.” In the United States, alone, it is believed that more than 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Approximately once every hour, someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder, the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Suicide and heart failure are two of the most common causes.

Common Eating Disorders


The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating. Although it is not unusual for the symptoms of an eating disorder to change over time, the symptoms most often associated with these three types of eating disorders include:

Anorexia Nervosa – someone struggling with anorexia nervosa will often see their body as being overweight when, in fact, they are dangerously underweight. Motivated by an intense fear of gaining weight, they will typically weigh themselves repeatedly and severely restrict the amount of food they eat. Some other symptoms that may occur:

  • Thinness to the point of emaciation
  • Denial of health risks
  • Weakening of the bones and muscles
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry, yellowish skin
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure, drop in body temperature
  • Heart and brain damage
  • Organ failure
  • Lethargy or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility

Bulimia Nervosa – with bulimia nervosa, there are frequent episodes of feeling unable to control the amount of food eaten, leading to binge eating and then compensating by some combination of behaviors, like forced vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, fasting or excessively exercising. Where those with anorexia nervosa are normally extremely underweight, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain a relatively normal weight. Symptoms include:

  • A persistent sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Tooth enamel damaged due to exposure to stomach acid
  • Gastrointestinal problems, like acid reflux disorder
  • Intestinal irritation from overuse of laxatives
  • Dehydration from loss of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance, possibly leading to stroke or heart attack

Binge-Eating Disorder – the most common of all eating disorders in the U.S., binge-eaters lose control over the amount or type of food being eaten but this is not followed by purging, excessive exercising or fasting. Most of those with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese. Symptoms of the binge-eating disorder include:

  • Eating unusually large quantities of food in one sitting
  • Continuing to eat when no longer hungry, even to the point of being uncomfortable
  • Eating especially fast
  • Secret or “closet” eating, due to shame or embarrassment
  • Frequently on a diet, yet rarely losing weight

With treatment, eating disorders can be replaced by healthier behaviors, and, sometimes, even serious complications caused by the eating disorder can be improved or replaced. As with all forms of mental illness, treatment plans need to be tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Most will include some combination of psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, medication, and monitoring.