Conditions InDepth: Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating. They are accompanied by feelings of distress or excessive concern about body shape or weight. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa . A third type, called binge eating disorder, has been proposed.

Eating disorders often develop during adolescence or early adulthood, but some reports indicate they can start during childhood or later in adulthood. Females are much more likely than males to develop an eating disorder. Males make up an estimated 5% to 15% of people with anorexia or bulimia, and an estimated 35% of those with binge eating disorder.

Eating disorders frequently occur with other psychiatric conditions, such as depression , substance abuse, and anxiety disorders . In addition, people with eating disorders can experience a wide range of physical health complications. Some of these are minor, and some, including serious heart conditions and kidney failure , may lead to death.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which you have an obsession with dieting and exercise, leading to excessive weight loss. You are generally considered to be anorexic when you do not maintain your body weight at or above 85% of your expected weight. An estimated 0.5% to 3.7% of females suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime.

Bulimia Nervosa

If you have bulimia nervosa, you feel overly concerned with your weight and body image. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder in which you compulsively eat large amounts of food. This is called binging. Then you use unhealthy means (i.e., vomiting, laxatives, or water pills) to purge or rid your body of the food eaten. You may also (or instead) diet vigorously or engage in extreme amounts of exercise to use up calories taken in through binging. An estimated 1.1% to 4.2% of females have bulimia nervosa at some point in their lifetime.

Binge Eating Disorder

If you have binge eating disorder, you eat excessive amounts of food within a short period of time. Episodes of binge eating are associated with at least three of the following:

  • Eating considerably more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until you feel uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food although you don’t feel hungry
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment about the amount of food you eat
  • Feeling disgusted about yourself, depressed, or guilty about your eating behavior

During an episode you feel a lack of control over your eating. On average, binge eating occurs at least two days a week for six months. You do not purge your body of the excess calories; therefore, you may be overweight for your age and height. During and after a binge, you feel self-disgust and shame, which can lead to another binge. Community surveys have estimated that between 2%-5% of Americans experience binge eating disorder in any six-month period.

What are the risk factors for eating disorders?
What are the symptoms of eating disorders?
How are eating disorders diagnosed?
What are the treatments for eating disorders?
Are there screening tests for eating disorders?
How can I reduce my risk of eating disorders?
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
What is it like to live with eating disorders?
Where can I get more information about eating disorders?


Eating disorders. Medline Plus website. Available at: . Accessed April 8, 2007.

Eating disorders: facts about eating disorders and the search for solutions. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: . Accessed April 8, 2007.

General information. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Available at: . Accessed April 8, 2007.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Available at: .

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. Available at: .

Yager J, Devlin MJ, Halmi KA, et al. Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Eating Disorders. 3rd ed. American Psychiatric Association; 2006. Available at: . Accessed April 8, 2007.

Last reviewed April 2007 by Janet Greenhut, MD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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