Eating Disorders: Types & Symptoms

Nursing Knowledge

Eating Disorders: Types & Symptoms

Eating disorders are a serious and complex group of mental health conditions that can have significant physical and psychological consequences. They are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors and a preoccupation with body weight and shape. Nurses play a crucial role in the identification, assessment, and treatment of eating disorders, as they are often the first healthcare professionals to encounter patients with these conditions.
Last updated: December 4, 2023

Table of contents

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. 

How many people have eating disorders? 

Eating disorders are relatively common, some estimate around 9% of the population being affected within their lifetime. People of every race, cultural background, socio-economic status, age group and gender can experience eating disorders, with adolescent females most commonly reported.

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex and usually result from a combination of factors. These can include genetic predisposition, psychological factors like low self-esteem or perfectionism, societal pressure around body image, and stressful life events or changes. It’s important to understand that eating disorders are not a choice; they are serious illnesses that require treatment.

What is body dysmorphia?

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or body dysmorphia, is a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often unnoticeable to others. (Definition by NHS.uk)

Types of eating disorders

Common types of eating disorders include: 

  • Anorexia nervosa (extreme food restriction and fear of gaining weight)
  • Bulimia nervosa (binge eating followed by purging)
  • Binge eating disorder (frequent episodes of uncontrollable eating)

Characteristics of common eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa
  • Gross body image distortion
  • Extreme fear of obesity resulting in restriction of food intake
  • May also engage in excessive exercise
  • Effort to lose weight takes over life.
Bulimia nervosa
  • Preoccupation with body image and perceptions of othersImpulsive, rapid ingestion of food
  • Binging followed by compensatory behaviors: induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives/diuretics
  • Symptoms of anxiety/depression often present
Binge eating disorder
  • Compulsive episodes of binge eatingFood intake dissociated from hunger/inability to feel satiated
  • Binging not followed by compensatory purging behaviors
  • Men and women equally affected

Eating disorder symptoms: What are signs of an eating disorder?

Signs and complications of common eating disorders

Anorexia nervosaBulimia nervosaBinge eating disorder
  • < 85% expected weight
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Bone loss
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Bradycardia
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Orthostatic hypotension
  • Amenorrhea
  • Normal weight range
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Tooth decay
  • Acid reflux
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Obesity
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • High cholesterol
  • AnemiaBone fractures
  • Heart failure
  • Brain damage
  • Esophageal scarring
  • Pancreatitis
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Long-term constipation
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Eating disorder treatment & therapy 

A multidisciplinary treatment plan should be tailored to the individual’s needs. May include: 

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Psychopharmacology: antidepressants & anxiolytics
  • Nutritional education
  • Nutritional counseling & diet plan

Nursing care considerations for eating disorders

  • Be aware of signs & screen for eating disorders in all client populations.
  • Establish trusting, non-judgmental relationship.
  • Explore feelings & underlying psychological concerns.
  • Facilitate collaboration among the multidisciplinary team.
  • Monitor food intake and weight gain, while being conscious of language and client triggers.
  • Support development of healthy, realistic body image.

What is the primary distinction between bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder?

The primary distinction between bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder is defined by the response after a binge. 

  • Bulimia nervosa: compensatory behaviors after binge eating like vomiting, excessive exercise, laxative abuse
  • Binge eating disorder: typically no compensatory behaviors after binging


Eating Disorders: Types & Symptoms

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Overview of eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, treatment, and nursing considerations

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