Single piece of broccoli on a plate

22 Feb 2024

Eating Disorders Awareness

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations.

It’s estimated that there are 725,000 people in the UK living with an eating disorder and anyone can develop them, irrespective of age, gender, cultural or racial background.

Eating disorders aren’t just about food. They can be about difficult or painful feelings which you are finding hard to face. Focusing on food can be a way of masking these problems, even from yourself.


What causes eating disorders?

It’s unclear exactly why someone develops an eating disorder, but most specialists believe that they develop because of a combination of psychological, environmental and genetic factors.

  • Psychological factors could include being vulnerable to depression and anxiety, finding stress hard to manage, worrying a lot about the future or being a perfectionist.
  • Environmental factors could arise from bullying or abuse, criticism for your body shape or eating habits, having difficult family relationships, or a job or hobby where being thin is seen as ideal.
  • Genetic factors could include changes in your brain or hormone levels or a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse.


Types of eating disorders

There are many different types of eating disorder, here we will cover the most common types.

  • Anorexia nervosa
    Anorexia nervosa (often called anorexia) is when you try to keep your weight as low as possible by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or a combination of the two.

    People with anorexia often have a distorted image of their bodies, thinking they're fat even when they're underweight.

    Men and women of any age can get anorexia, but it's most common in young women and typically starts in the mid-teens.
  • Bulimia 
    You will have an unhealthy eating cycle if you have bulimia – you lose control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action to not put on weight.

    People who have bulimia go through periods where they eat a lot of food in a very short amount of time (binge eating) and then purge the food from their body to try to stop themselves gaining weight.

    Purging could include making themselves vomit, using laxatives or diuretics (medicine that makes you pee more), fasting or doing excessive exercise, or a combination of these.

    Anyone can get bulimia, but it is more common in young people aged 15 to 25.
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
    You’ll eat a lot of food in a short period of time on a regular basis if you have BED. As with bulimia, you won’t feel in control of your eating and it’s likely to cause you distress. You may feel disconnected and struggle to remember what you have eaten.

    Binges are sometimes planned in advance, but can be spontaneous. They are usually done alone and may include "special" binge foods. You may feel guilty or ashamed after binge eating.

    Men and women of any age can get binge eating disorder, but it often starts when people are in their 20s or older.


Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED)

OSFED means you have symptoms of an eating disorder, but you don’t have all the typical symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or BED. You may have a mixture of symptoms from different eating disorders. This doesn’t mean that your illness is less serious.

  • Emotional overeating
    You turn to food when you have negative feelings if you are an emotional overeater. These can be feelings like anxiety or sadness. Eating food may help you to feel comforted.
  • Pica
    With pica, you eat non-food objects such as chalk, paint, stones and clothing. There is no nutritional benefit from eating these items and some can be harmful. Pica can lead to further health concerns such as dental and stomach problems.
  • Rumination disorder
    You will chew and spit out food without swallowing it if you have rumination disorder. You may do this repeatedly.
  • Selective eating disorder (SED)
    You will only eat certain foods and may refuse to try other foods if you have SED. This is common in young children. But the problem can continue into adulthood.
  • Orthorexia nervosa
    Orthorexia is not a recognised clinical diagnosis. But many people struggle with the symptoms. Orthorexia is when you pay too much attention to eating food that you feel is healthy and pure. It may begin as a healthy diet but becomes rigorous and obsessive. You may become socially isolated because you plan your life around food.


If you think you may have an eating disorder

If you or people around you are worried that you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you could have an eating disorder. If you struggle with any of the symptoms mentioned above or physical symptoms such as your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height, or not getting your period or other delayed signs of puberty, you should see a GP as soon as possible.

It can be hard to admit you have a problem and ask for help, so it may make things easier if you bring a friend or loved one with you to your appointment. A GP will ask about your eating habits and how you're feeling, plus check your overall health and weight. They may refer you to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists.

You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from eating disorders charity Beat by calling the Beat helpline on 0808 801 0677.


If you think someone you know may have an eating disorder

It can be very difficult to identify that a loved one or friend has an eating disorder. Warning signs to look out for include: dramatic weight loss or gain; going to the toilet a lot after eating or avoiding eating with others.

The person may not yet realise they have an eating disorder. They may also deny it, or be secretive and defensive about their eating or weight.

Let them know you're worried about them and encourage them to see a GP. You could also offer to go along with them.