Eating disorders

Having an eating disorder means having a difficult relationship with food. This can include eating too little or too much, or becoming fixated with your weight or shape. You may use food as a coping mechanism or a way to feel in control.

*Last updated 3 March 2021

The eating disorder charity Beat estimates that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Anyone can develop an eating disorder, no matter what their age, gender, race or cultural background is. For example, around 25% of those with an eating disorder are male. And not everyone with an eating disorder is underweight: most people stay within a normal weight range or are overweight.

There are several types of eating disorder, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa - trying to keep your weight as low as possible (for example, by not eating enough or over-exercising). You may have a distorted view of your body, thinking you’re larger than you are
  • Bulimia nervosa – having an unhealthy cycle of eating a lot of food and then doing something to try to stop weight gain, such as vomiting or taking laxatives
  • Binge eating – where you eat a lot of food in a short period of time on a regular basis. As with bulimia, you won’t feel in control of your eating.

If your symptoms don’t exactly fit the symptoms for any of these three eating disorders, you may be diagnosed with an ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder’ (OSFED). OFSED is the most common eating disorder. You can find out more about OFSED from the eating disorder charity BEAT.

Symptoms

If you or the people around you are worried you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you could have an eating disorder. Some common symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • eating very little food, or eating large amounts of food in a short time in an uncontrolled way
  • having strict habits, rituals, or routines around food
  • spending a lot of time worrying about your body weight and shape
  • changes in mood such as being anxious, depressed or withdrawn
  • making yourself sick or taking laxatives after eating
  • avoiding socialising when food may be involved
  • withdrawing from social groups, hobbies you used to enjoy or from family life
  • physical signs such as feeling cold, tired or dizzy; digestive problems; or your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height.

What causes eating disorders?

There is no single cause of eating disorders. Many specialists believe they develop because of a mixture of factors. These include:

  • biological factors – such as a family history of eating disorders or changes in your brain or hormone levels
  • psychological factors – such as a lack of confidence or self-esteem or being a perfectionist
  • social factors – such as bullying, difficulties with school or work, or abuse.

Getting support

If you’re worried you may have an eating disorder, contact your GP. Your GP may not be an expert in treating eating disorders, but they will be able to assess any physical symptoms and then refer you to specialist eating disorder services.

What help is available?

There are lots of different ways that eating disorders are treated. The most appropriate for you will depend on the type of eating disorder you have, how severe it is, and your personal circumstances and preferences.

Talking therapy involves working through your thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a mental health professional in regular sessions over a set period of time. There are different kinds of talking therapy available for treating and managing eating disorders. These include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), family therapy or psychotherapy.

During your therapy sessions, you may agree on an eating plan to ensure you’re getting the appropriate vitamins and minerals from your diet. Your GP may also conduct an X-ray to check your bone health if you have been underweight for a prolonged period of time, as this can lead to low bone strength.

If you have bulimia or binge eating disorder, you may be offered a guided self-help programme. This involves completing exercises in a workbook alongside having short sessions with a practitioner.

Helping someone with an eating disorder

If someone you care about has an eating disorder, or is starting to show some of the symptoms, encourage them to see their GP and perhaps offer to go along with them. Letting them know they are valued, that you support them and are willing to listen to them without judgement or criticism can be helpful. BEAT has further guidance on supporting a loved one with an eating disorder.

Further resources and information

  • BEAT provides support and advice via their helpline as well as online resources about eating disorders.
  • The National Centre for Eating Disorders provides resources for people with eating disorders and training for professionals.
  • Anorexia & Bulimia Care provides on-going care and support and practical guidance for people with eating disorders and their parents, families and friends.