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Eating disorders

An eating disorder is characterised by unhealthy thoughts towards food which result in abnormal behaviours around eating. These can in turn have a serious affect on the health of the person concerned.

If you are concerned about your own eating behaviour, or that of someone close to you, then you should contact your GP for advice and to look at possible treatments.

The two most well-known eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa but there are other types. The most common ones are:

Anorexia

People with anorexia believe themselves to be larger than they really are. They try to keep their weight very low, often by deliberately not eating or by doing too much exercise. They will often feel worried about eating too much or about their size and may feel a 'high' when they skip a meal or exercise. Because they want to keep losing weight, people with anorexia will often try to hide it from their family and friends.

Anorexia comes with many health risks and can be life-threatening. By starving your body you can become deficient in vital vitamins and minerals, your reproductive organs may stop working properly, and your heart can develop serious problems.

The NHS website provides more information on anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia

Bulimia is different from anorexia in the way that people who suffer from it act towards food. People with bulimia will restrict their intake of food, but then later binge-eat large amounts. This binging will often feel like they've lost control.

After binging someone with bulimia will often feel guilty and ashamed and try to undo what they have eaten by purging. This usually involves either making themself sick or taking laxatives. Because of the feelings of guilt and shame, people with bulimia will usually hide their problem from friends and family.

People with bulimia are at risk of longer term health problems including dental problems (excessive vomiting can damage your teeth), digestive problems (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and reproductive problems.

The NHS website provides more information on bulimia.

Binge eating

Binge eating is similar to bulimia because people will binge-eat large amounts to the point where they feel uncomfortably full. However binge-eaters won't try to purge afterwards, although they may limit their food intake after a binge. People who binge-eat often struggle with emotional issues which lead them to eat when they are feeling stressed, low or worried. They will often eat in secret because they feel ashamed of their eating habits.

Binge-eating is related to obesity, which comes with many health risks such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart problems.

The NHS website provides more information on binge eating.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)

EDNOS is diagnosed when there is an unhealthy pattern of thoughts and behaviours towards food but the specific criteria needed for a diagnosis of bulimia or anorexia are not quite met.

People with eating disorders are often ashamed of what they're doing or are afraid someone will stop them from doing it, so they may try to keep it a secret. There are some things you can look out for if you are worried someone you know might be suffering:

  • missing meals or making excuses not to eat (e.g. "I've already eaten")
  • visiting the bathroom frequently after eating and returning looking flushed or with marks on their knuckles
  • talking about food, calories or their size more than usual
  • eating low calorie foods frequently (such as celery or lettuce)
  • visiting pro-anorexia websites or frequently viewing images of thin models / celebrities.

Because of the health risks that come with eating disorders, if you have an eating disorder it is important to seek medical help. The doctor may want to run tests to make sure your body is okay. Your GP might recommend you take medications that can help with any underlying emotional problems and they may refer you for psychological help.

The psychological help they recommend will vary depending on each specific case, but may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), relationship-based therapy and dietary counselling. The aim of treating an eating disorder is to restore normal, healthy eating habits and to address any underlying emotional problems that may have caused an unhealthy attitude towards eating.

Most of us probably think that eating disorders are a problem for women rather than men. In fact anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of age, sex, or cultural or ethnic background.

Women are more likely than men to develop an eating disorder, but it is thought that eating disorders in men are greatly under-diagnosed and should be acknowledged as a growing issue. 

According to BEAT, the eating disorder charity, up to a quarter of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are male

Other information and Advice

If you want to speak to someone about yourself or someone you know who has an eating disorder, you can call one of the following organisations:

Anorexia and Bulimia Care provides personal advice and support to anyone affected by anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and all kinds of eating distress. Phone: 03000 11 12 13.

Beat provides helplines, online support and a network of UK-wide self-help groups to help adults and young people in the UK beat their eating disorders. Phone: 0808 801 0677 

Overeaters Anonymous Great Britain arranges local support groups where people follow a Twelve-Step programme to recover from all types of eating disorder. Phone: 07798 587802.

Please see the Other information and Advice page for organisations and services that support people with experience of mental health issues.