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What Are the Different Kinds of Eating Disorders?

How to recognize the most common ones

Writer: Hannah Sheldon-Dean

Clinical Expert: Allison Dubinski, LCSW

en Español

When most people think of an eating disorder, what comes to mind is a painfully thin young woman who eats almost nothing. But there are actually three common eating disorders. Not everyone with an eating disorder appears underweight, and not all are women.

Three of the most common eating disorders in children and teenagers are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Other eating issues that kids may be diagnosed with include avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), rumination disorder, and pica. Kids who have serious problems with eating that don’t match any of these disorders sometimes get a broad diagnosis called unspecified eating and feeding disorder.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can cause kids to starve themselves. Children and teenagers with anorexia believe they are too fat, even though everyone else sees them as way too thin.

To maintain a very low weight, they eat very little and may throw up on purpose or exercise intensely. They may not understand that their opinion of their body is distorted and that their choices are not healthy.

There is also a form of anorexia, known as atypical anorexia, in which the patient does not appear to be underweight but still shows all the other signs of anorexia and loses weight dangerously quickly.

Anorexia usually begins during the teenage years. Because children with anorexia often do well in school and are popular, it can be hard for parents and other adults to see there’s a problem. Girls are diagnosed much more often than boys, but that could be partly because anorexia is harder to spot in boys.

Anorexia is extremely serious. The earlier it is treated, the better. If it’s not treated, it can lead to fatal medical problems or suicide.

Signs of anorexia include:

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Weighing much less than is normal for their age
  • Being very afraid of getting fat
  • Refusing to eat a normal amount of food or going on extreme diets
  • Seeing weight as a very important part of their identity
  • Making themselves vomit or using laxatives (this is called purging)
  • Exercising too much
  • Weak nails or hair loss
  • Constipation
  • Not having regular periods

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a child has periods of out-of-control eating called binging. After eating way too much, the child tries to reverse the binging by doing what’s called purging: throwing up on purpose, using laxatives, not eating, or exercising too much.

Unlike kids with anorexia, kids with bulimia are usually normal weight or somewhat overweight. But the way they maintain their weight is very unhealthy. Bulimia is diagnosed more often in girls than boys and it usually starts in adolescence.

Children with bulimia often hide their binging and purging, so it can be hard to spot.

Common signs of bulimia include:

  • Eating a lot of food in a very short time
  • Making up for eating a lot by vomiting, using laxatives, not eating at all, or exercising too much
  • Having a self-image that is mostly focused on body weight
  • Missing a lot of meals
  • Rushing to the bathroom right after eating
  • Long periods of not eating
  • Being secretive about eating
  • Physical effects of vomiting, including sore throat, swollen glands, acid reflux, and teeth damaged by stomach acid

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder in which kids often eat way too much food very quickly. They usually do it in secret and feel guilty and ashamed. Children and teenagers with binge eating disorder cannot control their eating.

Kids with binge eating disorder may be normal weight or overweight. Unlike those with bulimia, children with binge eating disorder do not try to get rid of the food by making themselves vomit or taking laxatives.

Signs of binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating very large amounts of food
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Eating very fast
  • Eating so much that they feel sick
  • Eating in secret when they think no one will notice
  • Feeling depressed, anxious or ashamed about overeating
  • Repeatedly losing weight and then gaining it back 
This article was last reviewed or updated on February 19, 2024.