Eating Disorders

Eating disorders happen when a woman or man has an abnormal attitude towards food that causes them to change their eating habits and behaviours.

A person with an eating disorder might focus excessively on their weight and shape. This leads them to make unhealthy choices about food, with damaging results to their health.

Types of eating disorders

Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. The most common eating disorders are:

anorexia nervosa - when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, for example by starving themselves or exercising excessively

bulimia - when someone tries to control their weight by binge eating and then deliberately being sick or using laxatives (medication to help empty their bowels)

compulsive overeating - when someone feels compelled to overeat.

Some people, particularly young people, may be diagnosed with an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). This means you have some, but not all, of the typical signs of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

Have I got an eating disorder?

If you have three or more of the following, see your GP:

  • Periods when you binge eat (you eat a large amount of food in one sitting)
  • Times when you purge (make yourself get rid of the food you have eaten)
  • Feelings of guilt and disgust with yourself after purging
  • A stock of laxatives or diuretics that you use to purge
  • Times when you make yourself vomit after eating
  • Have irregular menstrual periods
  • A secretive relationship with what and when you eat (i.e. you only eat on your own)
  • Constant weight fluctuations
  • A problem with feeling constantly tired
  • Recurring low mood
  • Denial of the problem

Causes of eating disorders

Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex. Risk factors that can make someone more likely to have an eating disorder include:

  • having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse
  • being criticised for their eating habits, body shape or weight
  • difficult relationships with a partner, family member or friends
  • stressful situations, for example problems at university or work
  • being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job (for example ballet dancers, models or athletes)
  • certain characteristics, for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist
  • particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special.
  • difficult relationships with a partner, family member or friends.

What we eat, or don’t eat, is one of the few things in our life within our control. As young children we choose to assert this control by eating or rejecting the food given. It is very difficult for people to force us to chew and swallow. Hence, we learn that food is a means of exerting our control.

Accepting food gives pleasure and refusing it will often upset someone. This is particularly true within families. Saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to food may be the only way you think you can express your feelings.

Helping yourself

There is a lot you can do to help yourself, although having support from friends, family or professionals greatly increases your chances of recovery:


  • Stick to regular mealtimes – breakfast, lunch and dinner. If your weight is very low, have morning, afternoon and night time snacks.
  • Try to think of one small step you could take towards a healthier way of eating. If you can’t face eating breakfast, try sitting at the table for a few minutes at breakfast time and just drinking a glass of water. When you have got used to doing this, have just a little to eat, even half a slice of toast – but do it every day.
  • Keep a diary of what you eat, when you eat it and what your thoughts and feelings have been every day. Use this to see if there are connections between how you feel, what you are thinking about, and how you eat.
  • Try to be honest about what you are or are not eating, both with yourself and with other people
  • Be more compassionate to yourself. You don’t have to be achieving things all the time.
  • Make sure you know what a reasonable weight is for you, and that you understand why. You can check your BMI here.



  • Don’t weigh yourself more than once a week
  • Don’t spend time checking your body and looking at yourself in the mirror. Nobody is perfect. The longer you look at yourself, the more likely you are to find something you don’t like.
  • Don’t cut yourself off from family and friends. You may want to because they think you are too thin, but they can be a lifeline.

    Eating disorders affect all areas of your life, so it is really important to get help.

Worried about someone else?

It can often be very difficult to recognise a loved one or friend has an eating disorder.

Warning signs to look out for include:

  • missing meals
  • complaining of being fat, even though they have a normal weight or are underweight
  • repeatedly weighing themselves and looking at themselves in the mirror
  • making repeated claims that they have already eaten, or they will shortly be going out to eat somewhere else
  • cooking big or complicated meals for other people, but eating little or none of the food themselves
  • only eating certain low-calorie foods in your presence, such as lettuce or celery
  • feeling uncomfortable or refusing to eat in public places, such as a restaurant
  • the use of "pro-anorexia" websites

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, it is difficult to know what to do. They may be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they are likely to deny being unwell.

You have to be really careful not to be complicit in their eating disorder. This means that you don’t buy them lots of food, or ignore it if they go to the toilet to be sick, or encourage them by giving compliments about their weight that you don’t mean.

Eating disorders can be cured but the sufferer needs to want to make changes. People suffering from Bulimia or Compulsive Eating have access to a range of self help materials, but Anorexia is a condition that requires professional help.

Find out how to Access our Wellbeing Drop In for specialist advice and support.

The binge/purge cycle


Image of the Binge Purge CycleEating disorders affect all areas of your life, so it is really important to get help.


Eating disorders in numbers
Eating disorders can affect people of any age. Around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men will experience anorexia nervosa at some point. The condition usually develops around the age of 16 or 17. Bulimia is five times more common than anorexia nervosa and 90% of people with bulimia are female. It usually develops around the age of 18 or 19. Compulsive overeating affects males and females equally and usually appears later in life, between the ages of 30 and 40.

Eating disorders affect all areas of your life, so it is really important to get help.

See your GP
Access our daily Wellbeing Drop In

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