What is an Eating Disorder?

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

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All the definitions.

Ten to fifteen percent of American adults suffer from an eating disorder. People are clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, or they can be self-diagnosed and still have a significant problem. So what is an eating disorder? Let’s breakdown it down.

Merriam Webster defines eating disorder as “any of several psychological disorders (such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia) characterized by serious disturbances of eating behavior.” I would define it as any behavior around food that interferes with a healthy life.

Anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa are the most common. Other eating disorders include pica, rumination eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, purging disorder, night eating syndrome, and orthorexia. Let’s dive into each.

Anorexia Nervosa.

One of the most common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is characterized as excessive worrying about gaining weight and calorie intake; excessive exercise can accompany this disorder. Anorexia can result in severe weight loss.

Binge Eating Disorder.

Binge eating disorder is characterized as eating a large amount of food in a small amount of time. The crux of the definition is binging is accompanied by an out of control feeling, guilt, or shame. This disorder includes emotional and stress eating.

Bulimia Nervosa.

Often referred to only as bulimia, bulimia nervosa is characterized as binge eating, then purging by vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, or laxatives/diuretics. Often this disorder goes hand in hand with an unrealistic body image. It can result in kidney failure, heart problems, gum disease, tooth decay, digestive issues, dehydration, malnutrition, or chemical imbalances.


This eating disorder is characterized by eating items of no nutritional value such as ice, soap, dirt, or paint. Observed in children, pregnant women, or individuals with mental disabilities, this eating disorder is usually temporary.

Rumination Eating Disorder.

Rumination eating disorder is characterized as eating food, swallowing, regurgitating the food, chewing it again, then re-swallowing it or spitting it out. Food isn’t involuntarily or forcefully expelled from the body like in vomiting. It is a rare but chronic condition affecting all ages.

Avoidant/Restrictive food intake disorder.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID, is characterized as avoiding certain foods or eating very little food. It is common in infants or children and can lead to nutritional deficiency; it can persist into adulthood.

Purging Disorder.

This eating disorder is characterized by purging activities such as vomiting, excessive exercise, laxatives, or fasting. The goal is to lose weight or obtain a specific body shape. It is different from bulimia in that no binge eating has occurred before the purge.

Night Eating Syndrome.

Night eating syndrome is characterized as a combination of insomnia and binge eating disorder. Eating occurs more during the night than during the day, in periods of restlessness. Diet can consist of ordinary to excessive amounts of food. The disorder can be accompanied by the feeling of needing to eat to get back to sleep.


Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. The focus is on quality, not quantity, and the purity of food and it’s health benefits. The end goal is not to lose weight. One risk factor is a former or current eating disorder.

Book: Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders

Author: Anderson, L.K.; Murray, S.B.; Kaye, W.H.

Publish Date: September 26, 2017

Price: $69 (Paperback)

Description: "Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders brings together into one comprehensive resource what is known about an array of complicating factors for patients with ED, serving as an accessible introduction to each of the comorbidities and symptom presentations highlighted in the volume. The first section of the book focuses on the treatment of ED in the presence of various comorbidities, and the second section explores the treatment of ED with atypical symptom presentations. The third section focuses on how to adapt ED treatments for diverse populations typically neglected in controlled treatment trials: LGBT, pediatric, male, ethnically diverse, and older adult populations. Each chapter includes a review of clinical presentation, prevalence, treatment approaches, resources, conclusions, and future directions. Cutting edge and practical, Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders will appeal to researchers and health professionals involved in treating ED."

The deadliest mental illness is eating disorders. Ten percent of those diagnosed die from the disease. Causes of death include starvation, metabolic collapse, or suicide. Mirasol Recovery Centers states that ten to fifteen percent of American adults suffer from an eating disorder. Seventy-seven percent of people with an eating disorder report it lasting anywhere from one to fifteen years. Ten percent of college women suffer from an eating disorder. Eighty-six percent of patients develop the disease before age twenty. Twenty to twenty-five perfect of adults develop an eating disorder after dieting to lose or maintain weight.

Think you have an eating disorder? Check out our Eating Disorder Severity Test.

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