Eating disorders

Between 600,000 and 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are serious mental health problems.

Eating disorders are mental health problems where someone experiences issues with their body weight and shape, and engages in behaviour which will disturb their everyday diet and attitude towards food, for example controlling the amount of food they eat.2

The most common eating disorders are:3

  • anorexia nervosa – where an individual tries to keep their body weight as low as possible (for example, not eating enough and/or exercising excessively) because of a belief that their personal problems are caused by their physical appearance

  • bulimia nervosa – often just called bulimia, is an unhealthy eating pattern where an individual binge eats then purges, either by vomiting or taking laxatives, in order to control and keep their body weight as low as possible.

  • binge eating – where an individual eats excessively and feels compelled to do so on a regular basis.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of people diagnosed with an eating disorder (including eating disorder not otherwise specified) for ages 10-49 years increased from 32.3 to 37.2 per 100,000 population.4 This figure is likely to be underestimated as many people with eating disorders do not have a diagnosis.5 It is estimated that between 10% and 25% of those with eating disorders are male.6

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental health problems that have a number of underlying causes which can include, neurochemical changes, genetics, lack of confidence or self-esteem, perfectionist personality trait, problems such as bullying, or difficulties with school work can all be triggers for the condition. 

Some people attribute eating disorders to media and the increased important that is placed on wanting o ‘needing’ to have a certain body shape or type. People with eating disorders may feel that they can only ever be happy, successful or worthwhile if they had a certain body shape. It is important that media and pressures to be thin do not cause eating disorders, however these pressures can be triggering for someone already vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.

What are the effects of eating disorders?

In every case, eating disorders severely affect the quality of life of the individual and those that care for them. They can affect how you socialize, relationships with other people, ability to work, and they have a severe impact on physical and mental health and well-being.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health problem from medical complications associated with them not including suicide.

Research has found that 20% of people living with anorexia will die prematurely from their condition. Bulimia is also associated with severe medical complications as does those with binge eating disorders who often experience the medical complications associated with obesity.7 This shows that eating disorders can be severe mental health problems that must be taken seriously.

It is important to know however that eating disorders can be beaten and it is possible that anyone living with an eating disorder can fully recover.

How can I know if I have an eating disorder?

You may be diagnosed with an eating disorder if your eating habits threaten your health and happiness or threaten the health and happiness of the people who care for you. 

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

Warning signs to look out for include:8

  • missing meals. 
  • complaining of being fat, even though they have a normal weight or are underweight
  • repeatedly weighing themselves
  • 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 others’ presence, such as lettuce or celery
  • feeling uncomfortable or refusing to eat in public places, such as a restaurants
  • changes in personality
  • withdrawing from social groups, hobbies they use to enjoy or from family life
  • depression and anxiety, particularly around mealtimes.

What treatments are there for eating disorders?

Help from a doctor

If you are worried you may have an eating problem we advise you contact your family doctor (GP). Your doctor may not be an expert in treating eating disorders, but he/she will be able to assess any physical problems resulting from your eating disorder and can also help you to contact specialist eating disorder services. 

Specialist help

The most successful treatment for eating disorders in the longer term may be by talking to a specialist who can help with your emotional needs and can help you take control of your eating. 

‘Talking treatments’ such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are generally considered to be the most effective approach to treating eating disorders because they deal with the deeper underlying emotional issues which are the triggers for the eating disorder.

Help from carers

If someone you care about has an eating disorder, or is starting to show some of the symptoms, it is important that you let them know you are available for any help or support they ask for. You can offer suggestions, such as reading about the condition or joining a self-help group, but they have to make the decision to seek help them self or they may fear they are being controlled and this might increase the behaviour. 


There are a number of self-help books available in the shops. You can use these on your own, with a friend or with help from your GP or practice nurse. These books can be very helpful in describing strategies for improving your eating habits. They are generally written by medical experts but draw on the experience of people who have eating disorders. 

The organisation BEAT provide a range of online resources about eating disorders and can be accessed via:


1BEAT (2015). The costs of eating disorders: Social, health and economic impacts. [online] Available at:

2NHS Choices (2015). Eating disorders. [online] Available at:

3NHS Choices (2015). Eating disorders. [online] Available at:

4Micali, N., Hagberg, K.W., Petersen, I., & Treasure, J.L. (2013). The incidence of eating disorders in the UK in 2000-2009: Findings from the general practice research database. British Medical Journal, 3(5). doi:  10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002646

5National Centre for Social Research, University of Leicester. (2011). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007. [data collection]. 3rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 6379,

6BEAT (2015). The costs of eating disorders: Social, health and economic impacts. [online] Available at:

7BEAT (2015). Eating disorder statistics. Retrieved from

8NHS Choices (2015). Eating disorders. [online] Available at: