Eating disorders

Eating disorders change someone’s attitude towards food and their body in a way that influences their behaviour and eating habits. For example, an eating disorder can cause you to spend a lot of time thinking about your weight and body shape, and do things like avoid eating as much as possible, or exercise more than is healthy.

These changes in eating habits and behaviour can affect you physically, mentally, and socially.

Types of eating disorders

There are a number of different types of eating disorder. The most common ones are:

  • anorexia nervosa, where a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible by strictly controlling and limiting what they eat
  • bulimia, where a person overeats and then tries to avoid gaining weight by ‘purging’ – for example, by vomiting or taking laxatives
  • binge eating, where a person feels they have to overeat through regular binges

Eating disorders that don’t fit the above definitions may be described as:

  • atypical eating disorders
  • eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS)

How common are eating disorders?

During their lifetime, between 5 and 10% of people may experience an eating disorder.

Other conditions that affect food and eating

Some conditions involve food and eating, but aren’t related to concerns about weight or body shape. These include avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). ARFID causes a person to avoid certain foods or types of food, restrict how much they eat, or both.

Learn more about ARFID on the Beat website

Causes of eating disorders 

Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, but the causes are usually more complex. There are lots of possible reasons why a person might develop an eating disorder, and the causes are different for everybody.

These causes can be thought of as psychological, environmental, or biological.

Psychological causes

Many people who develop eating disorders share certain patterns of thinking and behaviour. These include:

  • a tendency towards feeling low in mood, or anxious
  • finding it difficult to cope with stress
  • finding it hard to express feelings
Environmental causes

Environmental causes are parts of the world around a person, and events happening in their life, that can affect their mental wellbeing in a variety of ways.

These include:

  • pressure from society to look a certain way
  • big, stressful life changes
  • difficult life experiences, such as abuse or bullying
  • difficult relationships with friends or family
Biological and genetic causes

Some people may be more likely to develop an eating disorder because of the way their brain works, and how that affects their body. For example, having a family history of eating disorders can mean a person is more likely to develop one.

There’s more information on the causes of eating disorders on our condition pages.

Read more about the causes of anorexia

Read more about the causes of bulimia

Read more about the causes of binge eating disorder

Treatment of eating disorders

An eating disorder can have a major impact on your life, including your relationships, job, schoolwork, and physical health. Without treatment, in the most extreme cases, eating disorders can be fatal.

With all eating disorders, the first step is recognising that there’s a problem and being willing to seek help. If you’re worried that you have an eating disorder, the first step towards getting help is usually speaking to your GP.

Treating an eating disorder usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping them with their mental health. The type of treatment used depends on the person involved, how serious their condition is, and what type of eating disorder they have.

For some people, self-help or guided self-help can be effective and help them to change the way they think about food and body shape.

When guided self-help isn’t appropriate, or wouldn’t be effective enough on its own, the main treatment is psychological therapy.

Medication alone isn’t usually effective for eating disorders. For some people it can be helpful to prescribe medication in combination with psychological treatment.

Other support

A leading charity for people with eating disorders is Beat, which has a range of information on the help and support available for people with eating disorders, and their friends and families.

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Source: NHS 24

Last updated:
03 May 2023