What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is psychological disorder that causes serious disturbance to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. Eating disorders aren’t about the intake of food and contrary to what people believe its more about control. Some people (mostly young teenagers) have so much going on in their lives that eating is one thing they can take control of.

Eating disorders describe illnesses that are characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape. Eating disorders may include inadequate or excessive food intake which can ultimately damage an individual's well-being. The most common forms of eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder and affect both men and women.

What causes Eating Disorders?

Eating Disorders are complex disorders and can be influenced by many different factors. Though the exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, it is generally believed that a combination of biological, psychological and environmental abnormalities contribute to the development of these illnesses.

It is very common for people (especially women) to be unhappy about their weight and shape. It doesn't help when the media and advertising make us believe that slim means beautiful and attractive and heavier means fat and unattractive. It can also be very confusing about what's good to eat and what’s not good to eat as more and more advice becomes available to us.

For young people it can be a way of claiming their independence. As young people reach their teenage years they have so many things going on and their lives can be very challenging and uncertain. At this point they are making decisions about their future, establishing independence, sexuality and relationships. The one thing they can control is what they eat and if they reduce or increase the amount they eat this can lead to an eating disorder.

People can also be prone to an eating disorder because of their family history. It could be that another family member has an eating disorder or they be responding to something that happened to them at a young age.

These are just some suggestions to how an eating order may start, there are any more examples. It is also thought that eating disorders are woman's illnesses which prevents men from speaking up and getting the much needed help they require to help them in their recovery.  Men suffer from eating disorders in exactly the same way women do.

Types of Eating Disorders

The most common forms of eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder.

  • Anorexia Nervosa - a person suffering from anorexia nervosa will typically have an obsessive fear of gaining weight, refuse to maintain a healthy body weight, and have an unrealistic perception of body image. Many people with Anorexia Nervosa will fiercely limit the quantity of food they consume and view themselves as overweight, even when they are clearly underweight. Anorexia Nervosa can have damaging health effects, such as brain damage, multi-organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties, infertility and even death.

  • Bulimia Nervosa - this eating disorder is characterised by repeated binge eating followed by behaviours that compensate for the overeating, such as forced vomiting, excessive exercise, or extreme use of laxatives or diuretics. Men and women who suffer with Bulimia may fear weight gain and feel severely unhappy with their body size and shape. The binge-eating and purging cycle is typically done in secret, creating feelings of shame, guilt, and lack of control. Bulimia Nervosa can have injuring effects, such as gastrointestinal problems, severe hydration, and heart difficulties resulting from an electrolyte imbalance.

  • Binge Eating Disorder - people who suffer from Binge Eating Disorder will frequently lose control over their eating. Different from Bulimia Nervosa however, episodes of binge-eating are not followed by compensatory behaviours, such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise. Because of this, many people suffering with Binge Eating Disorder may be obese and at an increased risk of developing other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease. Men and women who struggle with this disorder may also experience intense feelings of guilt, distress, and embarrassment related to their binge-eating, which could influence further progression of the eating disorder.


Each person's experience is unique therefore they can show different signs and symptoms. Some of which are:

  • weighing less than what would be expected

  • avoiding fatty foods

  • obsession with calories and other contents of foods

  • getting rid of foods by vomiting, using laxatives, exercising or not eating

  • skipping meals

  • cold hands and feet

  • feeling faint

  • wearing baggy clothes

  • refusing to believe they are thin

  • engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food

  • switching between periods of overeating and fasting

Self Help

Most people that have a diagnosis will need professional help but there are some things you can do to help yourself. You can join a support group, you may find this comforting to meet other people who feel the same way you do. There are also self help books available if you aren't quite up to going to a group just yet but talking to people could be very important for your recovery. There are also chat rooms online; they can be a great way to start chatting before you go face to face at a support group. It is important that you only use an online chat room that is monitored and offer guidelines to protect their users.


When seeking professional help the 1st port of call is usually your GP. Your GP will make an initial assessment before deciding which specialist treatment is best suited to you.

If your GP decides your situation is serious you may need to go to hospital for treatment.

They may decide that sending you for counselling or group therapy designed to help you take control of your eating disorder.

Anti-depressants can be used in helping with mood and anxiety that can occur with an eating disorder or in reduce binge eating.


Getting over an eating disorder is a huge challenge and it can take a long time. It won't happen overnight so it can become very frustrating. You may also worry that you will never get over it, all of these feelings are normal.

Patience, determination and with the support of your friends and family you will gradually learn to deal with your feelings and eventually you will be able to control your eating habits.

With a clear plan and a one step at a time approach you can make a good recovery.

NHS Choices - Eating Disorders