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What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis focused on your eating habits. Diagnosis of an eating disorder might involve medical tests on your body mass index (BMI), weight and blood, as well as other tests.
An eating problem describes any problematic relationship you have with food. Not every eating problem is diagnosed as an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are a type of eating problem, diagnosed by a health professional.
If you think you might have an eating disorder
If you or the people around you are concerned that you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you may have an eating disorder.
Changes in mood, including; anxiety, depression and withdrawing
Spending lots of time worrying about your body shape and weight
Exercising too much
Avoiding social situations that involve food
Using laxatives or making yourself sick after eating
Eating little food
Some physical symptoms you might experience are:
Fainting or feeling faint
Feeling tired, cold or dizzy
Poor circulation and pain in your arms and legs
Delayed puberty and periods
If you are worried that someone you know might have an eating disorder
It can be tricky discussing concerns with friends and family. If you are worried, here are some warning signs to look out for:
Lying about their weight, what or when they’ve eaten
Severe weight loss
Exercising a lot
Wearing baggy clothing to disguise weight loss
Eating lots of food very quickly
Eating alone / avoiding meals with others
Eating Disorder Diagnosis
Food and eating habits can be a medium for our stress and emotions to be expressed. Understanding behaviours and feelings linked to certain eating disorders is useful.
Approach your GP as soon as you can if you think you might have an eating disorder. Your GP will check your weight and overall health and ask you questions about your eating habits.
You may be referred to a specialist by your GP
There may be problems or difficulty in diagnosis if:
Your eating problems aren’t easy to categorise
Your complex relationship with food doesn’t fit into a diagnosis
You are experiencing a mixture of food-related issues that express a mixed diagnosis
It can be hard to ask for help. You might want to take someone with you or support someone you love who is going through it. The beat charity offers free advice too on the following numbers: Youth helpline - 0808 801 0711, Adult helpline - 0808 801 0677
Assisting someone you love with an eating disorder
If you are worried that someone you care about may have an eating disorder, make them aware you are concerned and encourage them to see a GP.
You can also call The Beat charity on the following numbers:
Youth helpline - 0808 801 0711
Adult helpline - 0808 801 0677 for support.
Different types of eating disorders and related treatments
There are several types of eating disorders. The most common are listed below:
If you are experiencing bulimia may experience a cycle of binging - eating large amounts of food in one go and purging - getting rid of the binged food.
Binging might happen when you are finding problems and feelings overwhelming. Purging may occur through shame around the food you have eaten.
Bulimia can make you feel hatred towards your body, guilt and shame, fear of being found out by loved ones, anxious or depressed, sad, upset and low, lonely, stuck in a cycle of control (or lack of).
Experiencing bulimia can lead you to daily cycles of eating/binging, followed by guilt over what you have eaten, leading to purging, hunger and eating again. You might eat in secret, make yourself sick, exercise a lot or use laxatives.
Changes in your body
Bulimia may harm your teeth, cause irregular periods or stop them altogether. It may make you experience frequent weight changes, dehydrate you, and give you a sore throat from stomach acid. Using laxatives can also lead to IBS, heart disease or stretched colon.
A diagnosis of anorexia (anorexia nervosa) means that you are not getting enough food; food creates the energy you need to stay healthy. Anorexia is connected to negative self-image, low self-esteem and feelings of distress.
Anorexia can make you feel like you are never good enough and need to be perfect. It can make you feel a need for control, a fear of putting on weight/getting fat, and a fear of putting on weight. You might find it challenging to think about anything other than food and that you are angry with and hiding things from the people around you. You might feel like there is no way out, and you may be depressed or suicidal.
Experiencing anorexia can mean becoming obsessed with calorie counting, reducing food intake, or stopping eating altogether. You might throw away or hide food, exercise a lot and spend your time checking your weight and thinking about losing weight. You might also avoid dangerous food or use drugs that claim to speed up digestion or reduce your appetite.
Changes in your body
Anorexia can make you weigh less than you should for your height and age. It can make you lose weight quickly, feel weak and become physically underdeveloped. You might lose your hair, find it hard to concentrate and develop bone problems. It can also affect your periods, make it hard to focus, feel weak and move slowly.
Binge Eating Disorder
A diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder means that you probably feel that you cannot stop eating. You may rely on food to feel happy or make yourself feel better. You may use food to bury difficult feelings or emotions. Binge eating disorder is sometimes known as ‘compulsive eating’.
Binge eating disorder can make you feel ashamed, out of control, empty and lonely. It can make you feel worthless and low and as if you can’t stop eating. You might feel anxious and stressed, and unhappy about your body.
If you are experiencing a binge eating disorder, you might eat without thinking about it and consume large amounts in one sitting (binge). Eat unhealthy food often, and comfort eat/eat when unhappy. You might find dieting difficult and hide how much you eat. You might eat until you are sick or uncomfortably full.
Changes in your body
Binge eating disorder can make you feel sick, experience shortness of breath, and put on weight. You might get sugar lows and highs and develop health problems such as; IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), acid reflux, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or muscle and joint pain.
Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
OSFED is the most common eating disorder when your symptoms do not fit any specific eating disorder. BEAT charity shares helpful information on OSFED.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
ARFID is when someone limits how much they eat, avoids certain foods or does both.
People who experience ARFID might:
A lack of interest in eating or not feeling hungry
Negative feelings over the texture, taste or smell of particular food
Respond poorly to food due to a past upsetting food-related experience like; binging after eating something or choking.
Treatment for eating disorders
You can recover from an eating disorder. Recovery will be different for everyone and may take time.
If you are referred to a specialist, they will be responsible for your care and talk to you about the assistance and support you need and create a treatment plan. Treatment is dependent on the eating disorder you have. Most treatment for eating disorders usually involves talking therapy; it might be group therapy for binge eating disorders.
If your eating disorder impacts your physical health, you might need regular health checks.
Treatment for bulimia or binge eating disorder might involve a guided self-help programme.
Eating Disorder FAQs
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a recognised mental health condition. People experiencing an eating disorder use the control of food to manage and cope with emotions, feelings and difficult situations.
What is unhealthy eating?
Eating too little or too much or becoming preoccupied with your body shape or weight can be unhealthy.
What age group do eating disorders affect?
People of all ages experience eating disordered, but young people aged between 13 and 17 are mostly affected.
Can you cure an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are treatable, and with the proper support, most people can recover from an eating disorder.
What is Bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa is taking drastic action such as purging to prevent weight gain. Losing control over how much you eat.
How is Bullima treated?
Treatment for bulimia may take time and might include; guided help, therapy, family therapy, CBT and medication.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Obsessive overeating, eating large portions of food, making yourself feel uncomfortably full.
How is Binge Eating Disorder treated?
Treatment for binge eating disorder may involve self-help programmes, therapy and group therapy.
What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia Nervosa is the control of weight by over-exercising, not eating enough food or both.
How is Anorexia Nervosa treated?
Treatment for anorexia can involve supervised weight gain and talking therapy. The approach is slightly different for those under 18 and adults. It is essential to seek treatment as early as possible to reduce the risk of serious complications, particularly if a lot of weight is lost.
What causes eating disorders?
There is no definitive answer to the cause of eating disorders. People experiencing any of the following may be more likely to experience an eating disorder:
A family history of eating disorders, alcohol/drugs misuse or depression
Criticism of body shape, eating habits, or weight
Anxiety, obsessive personality, perfectionism or low self-esteem
An experience of sexual abuse
Pressure from work or society