An eating disorder is a diagnosis given to someone who has unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviour about food and their body shape.

What are eating disorders?

There are a number of different types of eating disorders:

  • Binge eating disorder
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder.

Some of us may struggle with our weight or bodies, experience cravings, or comfort eat, but people with eating disorders become so worried about their diet and body they are unable to think about anything else. This affects other areas of their life, like relationships with family, friends and work. It will usually prevent them from making healthy decisions about their physical health too.

There are several different behaviours associated with eating disorders:

  • Some people restrict their diet, giving themselves strict rules for what they can and can't eat, when, and in what quantities.
  • Other people 'purge' their food, by vomiting, abusing laxatives or excessively exercising.
  • Some people 'binge eat' which is when they eat large amounts of food without being able to control themselves.

Many people with eating disorders will carry out a combination of these at once or over time. There is also a high proportion of people with eating disorders who have other mental health diagnoses.

There is nothing wrong in asking for help. There is nothing wrong in going to your GP and admitting that you are experiencing a mental health problem and that you need psychological help - Habiba

How common are eating disorders?

It is estimated that about 6 or 7 in every 100 people show signs of an eating disorder at any time, although many will not have a diagnosis.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about eating disorders?

You have to be underweight

Some people think you have to be extremely underweight to have an eating disorder. However, many people who are struggling remain within the normal weight range or are overweight. 

Relapsing into anorexia as an adult and mother after being well for over 20 years was not something I anticipated. The shame I feel as an adult/mother with anorexia has been awful - Melissa

They are just extreme diets

Eating disorders are not  'diets gone wrong' or frivolous attempts to look attractive or fashionable. People who struggle with them are dealing with a life-threatening mental health problem, often brought on by trauma or huge amounts of emotional distress. They should be taken seriously.

I was given just two weeks to live unless something drastically changed. Even then, hearing that I was going to die, I didn’t think I was ill enough for all the fuss - Frances

Only young women are affected

Men and women of all ages can be affected by eating disorders.

To talk about it then was something that I dare not do; things are changing but it is still hard for men in particular to talk so openly about bulimia, depression, and suicide - James

These misconceptions about what type of person can experience an eating disorder can  make people feel they are not ill enough, that they shouldn't be ill or that they should be able to control their problems somehow. This can stop people from speaking up or getting the help they need and can cost them their lives. 

How do eating disorders affect people's lives?

People with eating disorders can also feel anxious a lot of the time due to the presence of food, or their perceived failure to live up to their own strict rules or standards. They can also become very isolated, as they avoid social situations which involve food and drink. These feelings of isolation can trigger, or make worse, feelings of loneliness and low self-confidence. This can lead to suicidal feelings.

I spend much of the day just obsessing over food and I have strange and nonsensical rules about what I eat. Meal times and any time food is offered are huge causes of anxiety - Anon

People's physical health is also usually affected. Eating too much, not enough or purging food can leave them feeling tired, sick, or dizzy. They may get headaches, stomach aches and their teeth and skin can become damaged. They may also be unable to think properly or manage their moods.

I started fainting frequently and at random as well as having panic attacks on holiday, at school and on the bus - Louise

I dread any event with a buffet. Because I know I'll eat and I'll keep eating and I won't even enjoy it but I'll eat because I feel somehow I have to. I'll eat even when I'm feeling full, when I'm feeling bloated, feeling pain in my gut, feeling sick - Anon

How can I help someone with an eating disorder?

Learn about eating problems

There are lots of resources online that you can use to find out about eating problems. They may help you to understand what your friend or family member is going through and help you to feel more confident in offering support. Try starting with the Beat, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness websites.

Acknowledge how they feel

Struggling with something that everyone else seems to find normal and easy can be very lonely. Many people who struggle with their eating will feel intense shame about the things they've been doing.You don't have to understand why they are feeling the way they do, but letting them know that you understand it is hard, and that you are still there for them and don't judge them, can be a huge relief for them to hear.

I didn’t want people to know I was having counselling, in case they labelled me “crazy” or “insane” - Jodie

Ask them how you can help

Everybody is different and there is no one way to help someone who is struggling with their eating. If you want to support a friend or loved one, one of the best things to do is ask them how.

I am so grateful for the support of my housemate. Without him, I don’t think I would have even made an appointment with my doctor. Without his encouragement I doubt I would have gone back for that second appointment - Milli

Give them information about other types of support

Sometimes the support of friends and family is not enough. Letting them know about the support they can get from the NHS, private healthcare or organisations like Beat, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness can also be helpful. The type of support that is offered will depend on the types of problem someone is experiencing. Usually it will be psychological therapies, medication, or both.

Under some circumstances, someone may be admitted to hospital or a clinic if their physical health is at urgent risk or other home and community based treatments haven't worked.

Remember you can’t force someone to get help. Repeatedly trying to do so before they are ready can actually do more harm than good.

If someone is at serious risk or danger to themselves Mind or Rethink Mental Illness have information on what to do in an emergency.

Personal stories about eating disorders

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