What are Eating Disorders?

Category: Eating Disorders
9 minute read.

Eating disorders are dangerous and complex mental health conditions that affect the lives of millions of Americans of all ages and demographics. Despite ongoing research and education about eating disorders, many still believe they are  “by choice” or “in the head” of the person who is suffering. Data released by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) indicates the widespread prevalence of eating disorders in America.

  • At least one American dies every 62 minutes from complications directly related to eating disorders.
  • Across the nation, more than 30 million people of all ages, races, and genders have at least one eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders are among the most deadly mental health conditions, exceeded only by opioid addiction and overdose.

Eating disorders are complex mental health challenges that lead to significant physical and psychological consequences. It is not uncommon for someone with eating disorder symptoms to experience a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis, meaning they simultaneously experience the symptoms of an eating disorder and a substance use disorder. Specialized dual diagnosis treatment is crucial to achieving sobriety and recovery in these cases.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses diagnoses characterized by harmful and abnormal eating patterns. The physical effects of untreated eating disorders do not stop at weight loss or gain. Eating disorders can (and do) have a significant and detrimental impact on your physical and psychological health. More than ten thousand Americans of all ages lose their lives to complications directly related to eating disorders each year. Additionally, up to five percent of those who struggle with an eating disorder will attempt suicide.

There is no singular “cause” of eating disorders. Researchers suggest that a combination of social, genetic, environmental, and cultural factors contribute to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.

What are the Most Common Eating Disorders?

Several eating disorders are listed in the Diagnostic Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition or DSM-5. The most common eating disorder diagnoses include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa

Someone with anorexia nervosa symptoms is motivated by using food (or lack thereof) to remain thin. The most common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include altered eating habits, low body weight, problems with body weight perception, low blood pressure, dehydration, and anxiety. Without help from a treatment program like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center, the untreated effects of anorexia can have lasting and dangerous effects on your medical and emotional health.

Recent data indicates that up to 4% of women (regardless of age) will be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in their lifetime. While anorexia nervosa symptoms can develop at any age, the average age of onset is during one’s early teens (about the beginning of puberty).

Statistics indicate anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders. A 2003 study of female teens with diagnosed anorexia nervosa indicated they were 56 times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than peers of the same age without the disorder. Additionally, females diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are more than twelve times more likely to die from complications linked to anorexia than women without the illness.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa or bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by binging and purging. When someone has bulimia, they binge by eating excessive amounts of food in a single sitting. Once the food is consumed, they forcibly purge the food from their body. The act of purging is accomplished by self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives. Other common symptoms of bulimia include food aversions, consistent hunger, anxiety, bad breath, problems with dental hygiene, and weight changes. Some studies suggest bulimia nervosa affects up to three percent of women but less than one percent of men. Bulimia has a mortality rate of approximately four percent. 

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder that is frequently confused with bulimia nervosa due to similar symptoms. However, it is essential to note that they are two distinct illnesses. When someone has a binge eating disorder, they will consume excessive amounts of food in a short time (often a few hours or less). Binge eating disorder and bulimia differ because binge eating disorder does not involve purging. The diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder require that excessive food intake occur a minimum of once per week for three months.

Statistics show binge eating disorder is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder in the United States. Studies show it affects approximately 2% of men and 5% of women. The statistic for men is likely underreported as it is not uncommon for males to avoid seeking eating disorder treatment. Doctors providing surgical weight loss procedures see eating disorder rates as high as 40%.

Eating Disorders In Specific Demographics

The long-standing stereotype linked to eating disorders is generally associated with the young, white, affluent female. The more accurate assessment is that eating disorders do not know any race, gender, religious, or sexual preference boundaries. Eating disorders can (and do) affect people from all parts of culture and society.


In a recent study, more than one-third of female college-level athletes were found to have symptoms and attitudes that may place them at risk for anorexia. There is a significant amount of pressure for athletes to perform and to maintain a specific body size and shape. Without the benefit of good information related to eating disorders, these pressures can put even the most physically fit at risk.

Teens and College-age students

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, among teens between the ages of 13 and 18, almost four percent of females and 2 percent of males are reported to have a diagnosed eating disorder. Also, other recent studies in the Journal of School Nursing found that almost twenty-five percent of those teens misjudge their weight, meaning they believe they are overweight when they are not. Teens who misjudge their weight are more likely to develop unhealthy dietary habits.


Those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community commonly struggle with eating disorders. Unfortunately, treatment resources have not always been available to them for various reasons. Fortunately, as awareness increases, the availability of resources for treatment is widening.

Statistics regarding eating disorders for youth and adults who identify as LGBTQ+ are very inconsistent; however, the National Eating Disorder Association has stated that members of this population (especially teens) are thought to be at higher risk of binge eating and purging. Studies have shown the onset of these illnesses can occur as early as age 12 among LGBTQ+ youth. In comparison, the “normal” age of onset in the general population is one’s late teens and early twenties for binge eating disorders.

People of color

Eating disorder rates are similar among all races and ethnic backgrounds; however, people of color are less likely to receive treatment for an eating disorder.

Getting Help for Eating Disorders at Los Angeles Outpatient Center

Therapy for eating disorders can occur in several different settings, with treatment programs ranging from minimally to significantly intensive, depending on the needs of the individual. Most treatment plans involve a combination of psychological therapy (psychotherapy), nutrition education, medical monitoring, and sometimes medications. How long treatment lasts will depend on several factors, including the diagnosis, the severity of your illness, and the type of treatment program.

Eating disorder therapy involves several types of therapy. The most common examples include cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family-based therapies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, focuses on behaviors, thoughts, and feelings related to the eating disorder. After helping the individual gain healthy eating behaviors, cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions help them learn to recognize and change distorted thoughts that lead to eating disorder behaviors.

DBT is a behavioral treatment supported by empirical evidence for the treatment of anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Dialectical behavior therapy follows the premise that the most effective way to start eating disorder therapy is by encouraging behavioral change. DBT sessions focus on learning and practicing skills needed to replace harmful eating disorder behaviors. Family-based treatments involve family members learning to help their loved ones restore healthy eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight until the individual can do it on their own. This type of treatment can be beneficial for parents learning how to help a teen with an eating disorder.

Many people with an eating disorder fear seeking help to learn how to manage and overcome their symptoms. People who live with eating disorder symptoms often hide their symptoms from friends and loved ones for fear of how others will react. It is crucial to remember that eating disorders of all kinds can lead to dangerous medical and mental health consequences when left untreated. The safest way to recover from an eating disorder is to seek help at a professional treatment program like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center.

Eating disorder treatment at our Los Angeles treatment center ensures you or your loved one receives the care and support they need through therapy and nutritional counseling to develop better eating habits and a safe relationship with food. In addition to comprehensive therapy and nutrition education, your treatment team will ensure you have access to ongoing therapy and peer support after completing a primary treatment program. Although it is possible to recover from an eating disorder, there is no cure. Therefore, you must have a strong network of peer and family supports available to help you during challenging times.

If you would like to learn more about treatment for eating disorders in Los Angeles, contact a member of our admissions team today for more information about our programs or to schedule a tour.