How To Identify The Most Common Eating Disorders

The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

**Content Warning: This article discusses various types of eating disorders and the dangers and symptoms associated with them. If you or someone you love is living with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 (M-Th: 9 AM-9 PM EST, Fri 9 AM – 5 PM EST) for help and resources.**

Eating disorders are a significant problem in society. In the United States alone, about 30 million people live with eating disorders, yet they are still highly misunderstood.

Identifying an eating disorder in your loved one may not be easy. This could be due to the person hiding their behaviors or you not knowing what to look for. Furthermore, misconceptions about healthy diet habits may lead some people to believe that the dangerous symptoms of certain eating disorders are actually normal. Unfortunately, these misconceptions, as well as pressuring the person to continue these behaviors, can be quite fatal.

If you think your loved one has an eating disorder but aren’t sure, the best thing you can do is gather more information to know for sure. Here is an introduction to the most common eating disorders, including information on symptoms to help you identify them in your loved ones.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is the most well-known eating disorder on this list. People with anorexia avoid food or severely restrict their caloric intake in order to lose weight.

Though most people are familiar with the restrictive version of anorexia nervosa (where a person will severely limit the food they consume), there is also a binge-purge version of anorexia. People with this type still restrict their caloric intake but will also exhibit binging and purging behaviors.

When people picture a stereotypical person with anorexia, they imagine a young teenage girl or young adult who is severely underweight. Though the goal for people with anorexia is to lose weight, this does not always mean that they are underweight. Anyone of any shape or size can develop anorexia. Furthermore, this is not just a disorder for females. Males and other genders are also likely to develop this disorder (or any other eating disorder).

Some signs that a loved one may be developing anorexia nervosa include:

  • Weighing themselves repeatedly
  • Eating very little
  • Obsessed with their weight and the pursuit of thinness
  • Distorted body image
  • Low-self esteem, which is dependent on their perceptions of their weight

If anorexia nervosa is untreated, it can be fatal. People with this disorder put their bodies in starvation mode, which may eventually shut down essential functions and organs. Therefore, some severe symptoms that a person with anorexia life’s in danger include:

  • Thinning of bones
  • Anemia
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowing skin
  • Constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing and pulse
  • Brain damage
  • Heart problems
  • Growth of fine hair that covers the entire body (lanugo)
  • Organ failure
  • Low body temperature
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Infertility

If your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, they will need treatment for anorexia immediately.

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa will eat enormous quantities of food and then purge to avoid caloric intake. During a binge-eating episode, a person may feel that they cannot stop eating and may continue to do so until they are painfully full. Though a person with bulimia may binge on any kind of food, they typically choose food that they would typically avoid (such as junk food).

Bulimia nervosa may look very similar to the binging form of anorexia. However, people with bulimia often remain at a normal weight, while those with anorexia are in danger of becoming underweight.

Some common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Frequent binge-eating and purging episodes
  • Feeling a lack of control when it comes to eating
  • Using laxatives or diuretics
  • Excessive exercise
  • Vomiting after eating
  • An irrational fear of gaining weight
  • Low self-esteem that is dependent on weight and body shape
  • Inflamed or sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Worn tooth enamel and tooth decay
  • Acid reflux
  • Dehydration

Bulimia nervosa can also be very dangerous and potentially fatal. In severe cases, people with bulimia may have an imbalance of electrolytes which can cause a stroke or heart attack.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder may be the most common eating disorder. It can be easily confused with bulimia nervosa or the binging form of anorexia nervosa. Like the previous disorders, people with binge eating disorder may not feel in control of their binging behaviors. However, people with this disorder do not partake in behaviors that restrict calories or purge the food they consume.

Furthermore, people with this disorder are commonly overweight or obese since they do not partake in behaviors that reduce their caloric intake. As a result, they are at risk for obesity-related health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. However, there is help available. You can learn how to stop emotional eating forever with the help of a nutrition coach.

Therefore, the common symptoms of binge eating disorder are similar to bulimia, except that there is no purging involved. These symptoms include:

  • Eating enormous amounts of food until uncomfortable full
  • May prefer to eat in secret or when alone
  • Feels a lack of control when eating
  • Feelings of shame or guilt when thinking about their behavior


Pica is a unique eating disorder on this list as it is not characterized by a focus on the quantity of food eaten. Instead, pica is a disorder where a person may eat something that is not traditionally edible. Individuals with this disorder will crave unique substances such as ice, soil, chalk, pebbles, laundry detergent, or paper.

Though anyone of any age can develop this disorder, it is most commonly observed in children, pregnant women, and people with certain mental illnesses and disabilities.

Excessive or deficient intake of calories is not the problem with people with pica. They are more at risk for poisoning, infections, injuries to their gastrointestinal system, and nutritional deficiencies.

This disorder may be fairly easy or difficult to identify depending on the person. If the affected person is open about their cravings, you will know right away that they have this disorder. However, if they hide their behaviors, you may not be able to spot them right away. The only ways to identify pica are by witnessing your loved one consume nonedible items frequently or if you see them develop injuries or problems as a result of consuming those items.

Final Thoughts On Eating Disorders

Someone with an eating disorder may not be able to realize the danger they are in. Therefore, it is critical to understand the symptoms of these conditions so you can help your loved one. If you witness these symptoms in a loved one, find time to talk with them about your concerns and encourage them to get help.

If you are interested in reading more about how to help and support those with eating disorders, you can find more information at the link below: