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Definition of Eating Disorders

By Evelyn Attia, MD, Professor of Psychiatry; Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York State Psychiatric Institute; Weill Cornell Medical College, New York Presbyterian Hospital
B. Timothy Walsh, MD, Ruane Professor of Psychiatry; Founding Director, Eating Disorders Research Unit, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University; New York State Psychiatric Institute

Eating disorders involve a disturbance of eating or of behavior related to eating, typically including

  • Changes in what or how much people eat

  • Measures people take to prevent food from being absorbed (for example, making themselves vomit or taking a laxative)

For unusual eating behavior to be considered a disorder, the behavior must continue for a period of time and cause significant harm to the person's physical health and/or ability to function at school or work or negatively affect the person's interactions with other people.

Eating disorders include

  • Anorexia nervosa

  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

  • Binge eating disorder

  • Bulimia nervosa

  • Pica

  • Rumination disorder

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an unrealistic fear of gaining weight (see Anorexia Nervosa). People who have the disorder starve themselves to the point where their health is harmed. Although anorexia means loss of appetite, people with anorexia nervosa may not lose their appetite.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder is characterized by eating very little food and/or avoiding eating certain foods without the concern about body shape or weight that is typical in people with anorexia or bulimia nervosa (see Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder).

Binge eating disorder is characterized by eating larger amounts of food than most people would eat in a similar time under similar circumstances (see Binge Eating Disorder). People feel a loss of control during and after binge eating.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of rapidly eating large amounts of food, followed by attempting to compensate for the excess food consumed (for example, by purging—see Bulimia Nervosa).

Purging is self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives or enemas.

Pica is eating things that are not food (see Pica).

Rumination is regurgitation of food after eating (see Rumination Disorder). Regurgitation, unlike vomiting, may be voluntary.

Eating disorders are more common among women, especially younger women, than among men.