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Different Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are medical illnesses that are characterized by significant unhealthy disturbances in eating, diet, and weight management. Without appropriate treatment, they often result in significant physiological problems, and can in some cases be life-threatening. There are three main categories of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia for short, is diagnosed when a person is unwilling to maintain a healthy body weight, and uses very unhealthy ways of controlling their weight. People with anorexia may rely on severely restricting their diet, excessive or unhealthy levels of exercise, vomiting, or laxatives to keep their weight low. It is often thought that because someone may binge on food and then purge, that they are bulimic. In fact someone who engages in this sort of disordered eating may have either anorexia or bulimia. The distinction is that people with anorexia have extremely low body weight, whereas people with bulimia are of average body weight, and often overweight. This is an important distinction, as the unwillingness to maintain a minimally healthy body weight found in anorexia makes it a very dangerous illness, significantly more so than bulimia.

Anorexia can result in some of the following conditions if left untreated: anemia, osteoporosis, heart damage, brain damage, and multi-organ failure. Because of these serious complications, it is recommended that people with anorexia seek treatment at an intensive outpatient or residential program, where both medical and mental health professionals serve on the treatment team.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa, also known as bulimia, is a disorder in which people have eating binges followed by some kind of behavior to compensate for overeating. People with bulimia report the eating binges as beyond their control, and are often in response to increased stress, or hunger as a result of severe restricting of food intake. As in anorexia, the compensatory behavior can include vomiting, laxatives, and over-exercise.  The difference between bulimia and the binge-pure type of anorexia is that people with bulimia maintain an average to above-average weight.

Although the mortality rate for bulimia is lower than that of anorexia, bulimia is still a serious disease. Complication from bulimia can include worn tooth enamel, chronic sore throat, intestinal disorders, and heart attack or stroke due to electrolyte imbalance Treatment for bulimia can be managed in weekly or bi-weekly outpatient CBT, and the course of treatment is usually shorter than that of anorexia.

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder characterized by eating binges that are difficult to control. It differs from both anorexia or bulimia in that with binge-eating disorder there is no behavior to compensate for the overeating, such as purging or excessive exercise. Due to this, people with binge-eating disorder are often obese. As such, they suffer from the same sort of health effects one would expect from obesity, including heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke. Treatment for binge-eating disorder can be managed in weekly or bi-weekly outpatient CBT, and the course of treatment is usually shorter than that of anorexia or bulimia.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

Eating disorder not otherwise specified, or EDNOS, is a diagnostic classification for individuals who do not fit into one of the aforementioned disorder types, but still have disordered eating behaviors. An example of this is someone with anorexia-like symptoms, but who is able to keep his/her weight just above the threshold for a diagnosis of anorexia.  Eating disorder not otherwise specified is actually the most common diagnosis of people who seek treatment for disordered eating. In most cases treatment for EDNOS can be managed in weekly or bi-weekly outpatient CBT, and the treatment is variable, depending on the symptoms and chronicity of the disorder.