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Mental Health and Wellbeing

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where a sufferer uses food to cope with feeling and other situations. Unhealthy eating behaviours may include eating too much or too little, worrying about weight or body shape. Eating disorders can affect anyone but it is increasingly common in those aged between 13 and 17. Most people can recover well with treatment and support.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are 3 many types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – Trying to control weight by exercising too much, not eating enough food or doing both.
  • Binge Eating Disorder – Eating large amounts of food until uncomfortably full.
  • Bulimia – Losing control over how much you eat and taking action to avoid putting on weight, such as binge eating followed by a period of forcibly being sick to avoid digestion.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), which is when a sufferer doesn’t quite fit the expected symptoms of any other eating disorder. It is an umbrella term that may be diagnosed when people don’t fit the symptoms of the previously mentioned disorders. It can include people who suffer from:

  • Atypical Anorexia – this occurs when someone has all the symptoms a medical professional may look for to diagnose anorexia with the exception that the person’s weight will remain within a “normal” range.
  • Bulimia Nervosa (of limited duration) – This occurs when someone has all the symptoms of bulimia with the exception that they will not binge or purge as much as doctors would expect.
  • Binge Eating Disorder (of limited duration) – This occurs when someone has the symptoms of binge eating disorder, however the binges don’t happen as often as doctors would expect.
  • Purging disorder – This is when someone purges, for example making themselves sick or by using laxatives, to affect their weight or shape, but does not binge or purge in cycles.
  • Night Eating Syndrome – this occurs when someone repeatedly eats at night, either by eating a lot of food after their evening meal or by eating after waking from sleep.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) occurs when a person avoids certain food, limits how much they eat or do both. ARFID is not usually associated with a person’s beliefs around their weight or body shape. It is possible that it can stem from:

  • Negative feeling over the smell, taste or texture of certain foods.
  • A negative experience with particular foods, such as choking or being sick after eating something.
  • Not feeling hungry or having a lack of interest in eating.

What causes Eating Disorders?

There is no exact known cause for an eating disorder, most people who develop them will have a unique reason behind the disorder. Eating disorders are commonly seen in people who have experienced:

  • Family history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug misuse
  • Pressure from an outside source to be slim or to look a particular way
  • Repeated criticism for their eating habits, weight or body shape
  • The sufferer experiences anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive-personality or they are a perfectionist
  • They are a survivor of sexual abuse

Symptoms of Eating Disorders

There are various symptoms that can relate to an eating disorder, however if someone feels that they have an unhealthy relationship with food they may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Avoiding socialising, particularly in situations where food may be involved
  • Changes in mood such as being withdrawn, anxious or depressed
  • Eating very little food
  • Exercising more than normal
  • Feeling physically cold, tired or dizzy
  • Having strict habits and routines around food
  • Heart palpitations, fainting or feeling faint
  • Making themselves sick or using laxatives after they eat
  • Not getting a period or other delayed signs of puberty 
  • Pains, numbness or tingling in your arms and legs (poor circulation)
  • Problems with digestions, such as a constipation, diarrhoea or bloating
  • Spending a lot of time worrying about their weight or body shape
  • Weight being higher or lower than expected

Warning signs

It can be difficult to identify if a friend or family member is suffering with an eating disorder, warning signs can include:

  • Avoiding eating with others
  • Cutting food into smaller pieces or eating very slowly
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Eating a lot of food in a short amount of time
  • Exercising more than normal
  • Going to the bathroom after eating
  • Lying about how much they have eaten, when they last ate or their weight
  • Wearing loose or baggy clothing to hide any weight loss

Getting Help

If someone believes that they may have an eating disorder, it is important to see a medical profession, such as a GP as soon as you can. A GP will ask questions regarding eating habits, check weight and height and ask some personal questions regarding emotions. Eating Disorder specialists may be brought in to help.

It can be difficult to know if someone else is suffering from an eating disorder, they may not know it themselves. If they are aware there is the possibility that they could become defensive when questioned, be secretive regarding it or simply deny it. Let them know that you are there to support them and encourage them to seek out medical support.


Recovery from an eating disorder is not impossible but it will take time and it is unique to the individual. If eating disorder specialists are involved, they will be responsible for the care and treatment. They will discuss support, if there are any other conditions that may affect the person and their recovery and a treatment plan that is tailored to them. The treatments vary depending on the type of disorder but talking therapies play a big part in the recovery process. Regular health checks will also be standard to ensure that the eating disorder hasn’t left a lasting impact on a person’s physical health.