Types of Eating Disorders

There are several different types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating. The causes of eating disorder are not always understood, but there are some theories. We’ll talk about those in a moment.

Anorexia Nervosa

Of all types of eating disorders, this is one of the most common. People who are anorexic tend to have a distorted body image. They generally believe they are overweight when in fact they are seriously underweight. Anorexic people restrict food and may exercise compulsively in order to lose weight. They may also abuse diet pills and/or laxatives.

People with anorexia usually try to hide their condition. They may wear bulky clothes to disguise their weight, pretend to eat, and so forth. They may lie about their weight.

People with anorexia may have a number of medical problems, some of them quite serious. Medical problems may include heart trouble, kidney and liver disease, and bone disease. Without treatment, about 20% of people with the condition die.

Bulimia Nervosa

Next to anorexia, bulimia is probably the best known of all types of eating disorders. People with bulimia nervosa binge eat, consuming a large amount of food at one sitting. They then purge by forcing themselves to vomit. Laxatives are often abused, as well. Like anorexics, bulimics may exercise compulsively in order to lose weight.


Bulimics are usually underweight, but may be able to maintain a normal body weight while still binging and purging. They are secretive about their behavior. Other people may be surprised to learn they are bulimic.

People with bulimia may have the same kinds of medical problems as people with anorexia. In addition, they may sustain damage to the esophagus due to the acidic content of vomit.

Compulsive Overeating

Of all types of eating disorders, this one is not very well known. While it is considered attractive and an achievement to be thin, it is considered unattractive, an embarrassment, and a failure to be overweight.  Compulsive overeaters may not realize they have a disorder; they just think they need to lose weight. Their physicians may think the same thing.

What makes compulsive overeating different than simply eating a lot is the compulsive part. A compulsive overeater will feel compelled to eat. He or she feels out of control. The need to eat is overwhelming. Eating is often done alone and in secret. Very large amounts of food are often consumed.

Compulsive overeaters are usually grossly overweight. They are at risk for heart problems, stroke, and other medical problems due to their weight.

Causes of Eating Disorder

Causes of eating disorder are not really understood. There are a couple of popular theories.

Some believe that disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are caused by western culture, with the media and other emphasis on being thin. These eating disorders are rarely seen in non-western cultures, but are becoming more prevalent as those societies become more “westernized.” This does not explain the causes of eating disorder like compulsive overeating, however.

Others believe that early childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse, causes eating disorders. With all types of eating disorders, it’s true that there is often a history of childhood abuse. Whether or not this causes the eating disorder is not known for certain.

Still others believe that eating disorders are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. They believe that the brain does not utilize the chemical serotonin correctly. Antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may be prescribed as part of the overall treatment for eating disorders.

For more information on the causes of eating disorders, symptoms, and treating eating disorders, please see our home page.


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