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?

For further information about diagnosis and treatment for the different types of eating disorders, go to anorexia, bulimia or binge eating

There are several different types of eating disorder, the most common being anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Eating disorders are mental health conditions that 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 a preoccupation and concern 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 in order 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 many factors, 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, problems at school, college, university or work, lack of confidence, or sexual or emotional abuse. Many people 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.

In situations where there are high academic expectations, family issues or social pressures, you may focus on food and eating as a way of coping.

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.

Some studies have also shown that there are biological factors involved. In other words, some people will be 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, and 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 that the eating disorder 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 a number of 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, which 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 is 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, go to Advice for parents. For advice for teens 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.

Anorexia nervosa

Professor Janet Treasure, director of the eating disorder unit at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, talks about anorexia nervosa, including how to spot the symptoms and how the eating disorder can affect a person's life

Media last reviewed: 18/03/2013

Next review due: 18/03/2015

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2013

Next review due: 26/03/2015

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