What are eating disorders?

What are eating disorders?

An eating disorder is "when you have an unhealthy attitude to food, which can take over your life and make you ill," says the NHS

People with eating disorders often feel they’re too fat or that their life would be better if they lost weight, and so they engage in dangerous behaviours with food – such as skipping meals, or only eating very limited types of food. But not all eating disorders are about body image. They can also be related to a person's emotional or psychological issues, such as dealing with stress, grief or wanting to feel more in control of their life.

Lots of people change their diets or start doing more exercise in order to be healthier – and there’s nothing wrong with eating vegetables or going for a run a couple of times a week, if it makes you feel good. But when that behaviour becomes obsessive, more serious problems can occur.

If having a slice of cake can ruin your day, or you avoid going to your friend's house for dinner because you’re not sure what food will be there, this could be a sign of disordered eating and it's a good idea to have a chat to your GP.

What types of eating disorders are there?

There are a range of eating disorders that have different symptoms and behaviours.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is when a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible, usually through extremely restricted eating and/or excessive exercise. Side effects can include hair loss, fatigue, dizziness, weakening of the bones, missing periods and growing downy hair on the arms or neck.


Bulimia is when a person binges on food and then makes themselves deliberately sick, or uses laxatives to try and control their weight. Bulimia has a lot of the same side effects as anorexia, as well as rotting teeth (from stomach acid) and blurring vision.

Binge eating disorder (BED)

Similarly to bulimia, BED is when a person feels compelled to eat large amounts of foods in a short space of time. They don't usually make themselves sick or use laxatives, but they might eat less than normal or try to follow a strict diet in between binges.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (ENDOS)

This is a sort of catch-all term to describe disordered eating behaviours that don’t fit into one of the categories above – but still have the power to make you pretty unhealthy and miserable.

TL;DR? Here's the important stuff:

  • Eating disorders are mental illnesses that cause someone to negatively change their eating behaviour, often in order to lose weight.
  • There are four main types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified.
  • There is no one thing that causes eating disorders, they are generally a combination of loads of different environmental and biological factors.
  • There are loads of treatment options available. Recovery can be a long process, but with the right help, people with eating disorders can make a full recovery.

What causes eating disorders?

There’s no one thing that causes eating disorders. Some people like to blame supermodels or magazines for giving us unrealistic standards of beauty and body image – but while they almost certainly don't help, the reality is that it’s much more complicated than that. The causes of eating disorders are different for each person.

There are also environmental and social factors that can trigger eating disorders, such as being criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight, but there are also biological factors that can contribute to eating disorders, such as having a family history of eating disorders or depression.

People with perfectionist tendencies, obsessive personalities or anxiety are also more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

How do we treat eating disorders?

Thankfully, there are loads of treatment options available for people with eating disorders. However recovery can be a long and bumpy process, so the support of friends and family is really important. If an eating disorder isn’t treated, it can have a severely negative impact on a person’s life – and in some cases, it can be fatal.

The treatment options involve both trying to improve a person’s physical health, and also helping them work through underlying mental issues.

Common treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which focuses on altering how someone thinks about a situation, and medication such as antidepressants. However, there are loads of other types of therapy available to suit different people and situations.

I think I might have an eating disorder

If you’re worried that you might have an eating disorder, it's a good idea to talk to your parents, your GP, a teacher or another adult you trust. You can also head over to the NHS website and answer their questionnaire (under 'Do I have an eating disorder?') – if you answer ‘yes’ to two or more of their five questions, you should definitely have a chat with your doctor.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to feel this way forever. Help and support is out there to get you through this.

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