Eating disorders explained

Find out the facts about eating disorders, including what they are, who's affected by them and what to do if you need help and support.

What is an eating disorder?

There are different types of eating disorder, the most common ones being anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Eating disorders are mental health conditions. They all involve an unhealthy relationship with food and eating, and often an intense fear of being overweight. If you have an eating disorder, you may experience one or more of the following:

  • You have an obsession with and worry about food and gaining weight.
  • You would like to lose weight even though friends or family worry that you are underweight.
  • You let people around you think you have eaten when you haven't.
  • You're secretive about your eating habits because you know they're unhealthy.
  • Eating makes you feel anxious, upset or guilty.
  • You make yourself vomit or use laxatives to lose weight.

What causes eating disorders?

It's unlikely that an eating disorder will be the result of one single cause. It's much more likely to be a combination of events, feelings or pressures that lead to you feeling unable to cope.

These can include low self-esteem, problems with friends or family relationships, the death of someone special, high academic expectations, problems at school, college, university or work, lack of confidence, or sexual or emotional abuse.

Lots of people with eating disorders talk about simply feeling too fat or not good enough. You might use food to help you cope with painful situations or feelings without even realising it.

Traumatic events can trigger an eating disorder. These might include bereavement, being bullied or abused, a divorce in the family or concerns about sexuality. Someone with a long-term illness or disability (such as diabetes, depression, blindness or deafness) may also have eating problems.

Studies have also shown that some people are more likely to develop an eating disorder because of their genetic make-up.

Who is affected by eating disorders?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, sex or cultural or racial background. The people most affected tend to be young women, particularly between the ages of 15 and 25. Around 10% of people with eating disorders are men.

What should I do if I think I have an eating disorder?

People with eating disorders often say it is the only way they feel they can stay in control of their life. But, as time goes on, it is the eating disorder that starts to control you. You may also have the urge to harm yourself, or misuse alcohol or drugs.

If you think you have an eating disorder, talk to someone you trust. You may have a close friend or family member you can talk to.

There are also some organisations that you can talk to, such as the eating disorders charity beat (0845 634 1414) and the Samaritans (08457 90 90 90).

Your GP can also give you advice and talk to you about getting a diagnosis and the possible treatment options. This will depend upon your individual circumstances and the type of eating disorder you have.

Worried that a friend or relative has an eating disorder?

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, it can be difficult to know what to do. It's common for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they are likely to deny being unwell.

For tips on how to approach and talk to your child about eating disorders, read Advice for parents. For advice on how help a friend, see Supporting someone with an eating disorder.

You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from beat by calling their helpline on 0845 634 1414. They also have a designated youth helpline on 0845 634 7650. 

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Article provided by NHS Choices

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