Lesser Known Eating Disorders: Signs and Symptoms

When it comes to eating disorders, most people are familiar with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These are the diagnoses that are commonly talked about, and what many individuals picture when they think of the experience of having an eating disorder. 

However, it is important to acknowledge that anorexia and bulimia are not the only eating disorders that exist. Recognizing the numerous ways in which eating disorders present is crucial to being able to identify and seek support for these serious conditions.

Eating disorder

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that severely impact an individual’s physical and emotional health. They involve extreme attitudes and behaviors around food, weight and/or exercise. Anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity or weight.

There are various risk factors that might increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder, such as having a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions, a pattern of dieting, the presence of an anxiety disorder, and personality traits such as perfectionism. For more information about these conditions and other mental health disorders, visit Mind Diagnostics.

Let’s look into three eating disorders that are not often discussed.

Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia nervosa involves fixation with healthy eating that ironically becomes unhealthy and decreases an individual’s quality of life. Unlike anorexia nervosa where the focus is on reducing the quantity of food to avoid weight gain, the focus in orthorexia nervosa is the quality (healthfulness) of the food consumed. Though weight loss is common with orthorexia, there is not typically the same level of concern around one’s body shape/size.

Signs and symptoms of orthorexia nervosa include:

  • Preoccupation with the nutritional value of food
  • Compulsively checking nutrition information and food labels
  • Cutting out entire food groups or attempting to eliminate all dairy, fat, sugar, etc.
  • Eating a limited amount of foods considered ‘safe’ or ‘pure’
  • Guilt or shame upon breaking self-imposed dietary rules
  • Spending hours each day thinking about food and planning the next meal
  • Avoiding mealtimes or social events where one will be expected to eat ‘unhealthy’ food

Orthorexia nervosa can cause many negative effects such as malnutrition, social withdrawal and psychological distress. 

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Formerly known as Selective Eating Disorder, ARFID is characterized by eating disturbances that cause significant weight loss or nutritional deficiency. This may be due to lack of interest in eating or food, aversion to certain textures of food, or worry about potential consequences of eating (such as choking or vomiting). This condition differs from other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa in that body image concerns are not present.

Signs and symptoms of ARFID include:

  • Severe restriction in types/amount of food eaten
  • Having a narrow range of preferred foods
  • Lack of appetite or interest in food
  • Fear of choking or vomiting
  • Significant weight loss
  • Physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, lethargy, dizziness, etc.

If left untreated, ARFID can cause serious health consequences due to the body not having the proper nutrition it needs to function.

Jalapeno Poppers – Photo by: Joanna Alderson – Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED is a category that encompasses individuals who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia, but still have an eating disorder that requires treatment. Despite popular belief, OSFED is just as serious. Research shows that people living with OSFED are at the same risk of dying from their eating disorder as individuals with anorexia or bulimia.

Specific presentations of OSFED include atypical anorexia (an individual’s weight is not below normal range), purging disorder (purging behaviors without the presence of binge eating), bulimia nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder with less frequent behaviors or for a limited duration of time.

Warning signs of OSFED include:

  • Preoccupation with food, calories, dieting, etc.
  • Severely restricting types/amount of food eaten
  • Avoiding mealtimes or eating around others
  • Body image concerns/distorted self-image
  • Evidence of binge eating behaviors (such as large amounts of food vanishing, empty food wrappers/containers)
  • Evidence of purging behaviors (such as going to the bathroom immediately after meals)
  • Significant weight fluctuations
  • Withdrawal from others and one’s usual activities

Seeking Support

Even if you don’t see yourself fitting neatly into any particular diagnosis, if concerns around food, weight, or exercise are negatively impacting your life, it is worth discussing with a mental health professional. Eating disorders are very treatable conditions and many individuals are able to reach full recovery. The first step is recognizing that you need support and taking the first step.