How To Identify Common Eating Disorder Symptoms

Eating Disorder Symptoms

Eating disorders are mental health conditions defined by excessive, persistent thoughts surrounding the intake of food and nutrition. If eating disorder symptoms are left untreated, adverse health consequences, co-occurring conditions, and major disruptions in social functioning can occur.

Eating Disorder Symptoms and Types

There are several distinct eating disorder categories, and the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical manual from the American Psychiatric Association lists six different types of eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa

Characterized by an excessive fear of weight gain, distorted body image, and restrictive calorie intake.

Bulimia Nervosa

Characterized by periodic binging episodes, where a person consumes an amount of food that is much larger than normal, but they feel like they cannot control how much, or even what they are eating. Binging episodes are followed by caloric restriction, excessive exercise or off-label use of diuretics or laxatives, and even self-induced vomiting.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder occurs when a person loses control over the amount of food they are eating. They will consume an abnormally large amount of food and often feel guilty or disgusted once the episode is over.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

When a person deliberately restricts their caloric needs. People with ARFID often suffer from nutritional deficiencies and compensate with supplements.


When someone compulsively consumes substances that are not considered food and have no nutritional value. For example, if someone eats dirt or plaster, they have Pica.

Rumination Disorder

When someone regurgitates, re-swallows, or spits out their food for at least a month.

Other Specified Eating Disorder (OSED)

When someone meets a few of the standards for the above disorders, but not all of them. For example, if someone purges but does not binge, or if someone restricts their calories and has a distorted body image but their weight is normal or above the normal range.

Unspecified Eating Disorder

When someone does not meet any of the above criteria for an official diagnosis of an eating disorder, but their issues involving food and calorie intake cause them severe emotional upheaval and disruption to their daily lives.

Eating disorders are complex behavioral problems. While it is a common misconception that the desire to be thin is the direct cause of an eating disorder, that is far too simple of an explanation for such a distressful mental health condition.

It is the desire for control in the face of stressful, painful situations that are the cause of eating disorders. Sufferers believe their world is chaotic and disordered, and the only way they can have any sense of control over it is through eating, one of the most quintessential human activities, and by binging, purging, and restricting calories.

Risk Factors

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, but there are certain psychological, biological, and cultural risk factors that put some at a higher risk. Familial or cultural overemphasis on appearance, coupled with a traumatic or abusive environment, a close family member with the disorder, and a perfectionist, anxious attitude can put someone at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Over eight million Americans have an eating disorder. Statistically, women are more likely to suffer from one than men, but up to 15% of eating disorder sufferers in the United States are male. Rates are similar across ethnicities.

Up to 50% of eating disorder sufferers abuse alcohol or drugs, and those with bulimia are more likely to engage in the off-label use of medications like diuretics and laxatives. Cocaine and amphetamines are also used to curb appetite and lead to greater weight loss and calorie restriction. Close to 35% of people with a drug or alcohol addiction also have a comorbid eating disorder.

Usually, the eating disorder occurs before the drug addiction. Sufferers are starving, in pain, and uncomfortable. They also experience a lot of fear and anxiety that they will give in and start eating too much.

Eating Disorder Symptoms Co-Occurring with Addiction

To cope with eating disorder symptoms such as hunger pains and anxiety, people often turn to alcohol to curb the fear, and illicit drugs to curb the appetite. This only compounds the eating disorder, and puts the individual at greater risk for harm, in the form of adverse health consequences, legal and career problems, and relationship and family strain.

Those suffering from eating disorder symptoms coupled with substance abuse and/or alcohol addiction require customized individualized care. First, the drug addiction must be addressed in a safe environment. Once the person is detoxed, they can begin to address the underlying eating disorder with the help of trained professionals and support groups.

How are eating disorders treated?

Since eating disorder sufferers experience nutritional deficiencies and need adequate, patient guidance to learn how to properly care for themselves with a healthy diet and eating habits, a nutritionist’s input is needed in their treatment plan.

The nutritionist will counsel the individual on what a healthy diet looks like, and how to implement it into their life. The right diet will cure any nutritional deficiencies and health problems that may have occurred during the course of the eating disorder and drug addiction.

In addition, a supportive, trained therapist is also needed to help the individual untangle the harmful beliefs that caused their eating disorder. Since eating disorders are often accompanied by anxiety and depression, medications can be prescribed to help ease the symptoms.

Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and certain parameters must be put in place in the form of an on-going maintenance plan to give people the best chance of a life free from drug addiction and the pain and disruption of an eating disorder.

Inpatient and outpatient support groups are an effective way of giving recovering addicts and eating disorder sufferers, the support they need to live a healthy lifestyle. Support groups give sufferers a sense of community and understanding where their voices are heard.

A sense of isolation, which commonly occurs in people suffering from mental health disorders and drug addiction, dissipates in a group where the individuals have all experienced the same struggle. This gives the person in recovery the feeling that they are not alone, and through the group, they can continue to learn positive coping mechanisms and life skills that will keep them on the path to recovery.

Get Help Now

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, or a co-occurring substance abuse issue, please contact our admissions team today for a free and confidential assessment.