Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are neuropsychiatric or mental illnesses. They are characterized by inadequate (e.g. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa) or excessive (Binge Eating Disorder) eating which leads to poor nutrition, other health issues due to food avoidance/restriction, purging and/or binge eating. This can impact multiple organ systems leading to, for example, heart and kidney disorders, which often result in hospitalization and death.

Many individuals with eating disorders also develop other psychiatric or behavioral conditions, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance abuse issues. Stigmatization and social exclusion are also major problems for people diagnosed with eating and related disorders.


It is estimated that there are currently over 30 million individuals living with eating disorders in the US and this number is likely to increase in the years ahead. Eating disorders affect all genders, although rates are higher in females compared to males; present in all races and ethnicities; and have broad geographic distribution. Eating disorders impact children, adolescents and adults – the median age of onset being 18-21 years old. It is not yet possible to determine who are at (higher) risk and more likely to develop eating disorders.


The causes of eating disorders remain unknown, but they clearly do not occur as a result of lifestyle choices. Research suggests that hereditary/genetic and environmental factors play important roles, but specific elements have not been definitively identified. The changes in the brain and other biological alterations that underlie the development of eating disorders are also unclear, although abnormalities in some brain systems (e.g. basal ganglia) have been implicated in these conditions.


There is no diagnostic biological test to detect or monitor eating disorders. Rather, care providers use a combination of physical measures (BMI) and standardized questionnaires to determine a wide range of lifestyle, dietary, health and other factors associated with these conditions.


Eating disorders can be difficult to treat for several reasons. First, there is a lack of specific medications as only two drugs have been approved by the FDA for treating these conditions. Second, patients may not recognize the need for treatment, have the will to initiate treatment, or delay therapy until their illness becomes severe and complex. Third, some individuals find it challenging to comply with or remain in therapy once started. Fourth, relapse often occurs after periods of improvement. Finally, there can be challenges obtaining therapy due to poor access to suitably qualified care providers or due to financial difficulties.


The high and insidious occurrence of eating disorders, association with a wide range of disorders and the myriad of treatment difficulties, cause these illnesses to be among the most devastating of human conditions. They have a profoundly negative impact on those who are affected and their families, and are increasingly being recognized as public health concerns. Indeed, eating disorders are associated with the highest rates of morbidity and mortality among all mental disorders, as well as being linked to extremely high rates of substance abuse and suicides.

Types of Eating Disorders

The DSM-5 recognizes the following eating disorders, Anorexia Nervossa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, OSFED, and ARFID.


Eating Disorders Statistics

At least 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life.


Eating Disorders Organizations

There are many non-profit organizations available that provide resources and information for every stage of the eating disorder journey.


It’s Time to Talk About Eating Disorders

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