Eating disorders

Almost all of us will spend at least some of our time thinking about food and eating. It’s normal to have times when we lose our appetite, or go on a diet, and times when we eat more than usual.

You may have an eating problem or disorder if food and eating start to take over your life. For example you might think about food and eating all the time or restrict the amount of food you eat. You might eat a lot of food to help you deal with difficult emotions. You might check your body a lot or set yourself strict rules about what you eat and when. Eating or gaining weight might make you feel very anxious and panicky.

But eating problems are not just about food. They are usually about difficult emotions that you can’t express in other ways.

An image of people's hands on a desk

Who gets eating disorders?

Lots of people think only teenage girls get eating disorders or have problems with eating. But anyone can be affected by eating problems. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what gender you are or how much you weigh.

What types of eating disorder are there?

Eating disorder diagnoses are based on your behaviour, your eating patterns, and medical tests (blood tests and body mass index – BMI). Lots of people have problems with eating but do not fit into an official category for diagnosis. This sometimes makes it harder to get the help you need.

Types of eating disorder include:

  • Anorexia nervosa. If you have anorexia, you restrict your food intake and don’t eat enough to stay physically healthy. You’ll only be diagnosed with anorexia if you’re underweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa. If you have bulimia you eat a lot of food at once (binging) and then try and get rid of the food, often by vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise (purging). This cycle may happen a few times a week or many times a day. You may stay the same weight or swing from being underweight to overweight.
  • Binge eating disorder. If you have binge eating disorder you eat a lot of food all at once. You feel out of control of your eating and often feel disgusted, depressed and guilty afterwards. You may put on weight.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). You may be diagnosed with OFSED if your eating disorder doesn’t fit into any of the categories above.

What does it feel like to have an eating disorder?

Eating problems affect different people in different ways.

Although these feelings and experiences can be associated with particular diagnosis, it’s also possible to experience them without ever receiving an official diagnosis.

You may:

  • lose or gain weight quickly, or move between being overweight or underweight
  • dislike your body and compare your body to others
  • purge food (for example by vomiting, using laxatives or exercising a lot) when you feel you’ve eaten too much
  • have strict rules about food and eating
  • eat when you’re feeling upset, bored or angry
  • eat in secret or feel worried about eating in public

You may also

  • feel lonely and embarrassed
  • feel anxious, depressed or suicidal
  • feel tired and disinterested in things
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • feel as if you are not good enough, or need to be perfect

Eating not enough or too much, or purging a lot, can cause physical symptoms such as:

What causes eating disorders?

The causes of eating disorders are complicated and more research is needed. But research so far suggests you may be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder if:

  • you’re a perfectionist, have low self esteem or are very competitive
  • you have difficult life experiences such as abuse, bereavement, divorce, bullying or stress at school or work
  • you’re going through a major life change like puberty or leaving home
  • your parents were very strict or other people in your family had eating problems
  • you have other physical or mental health problems

New research has also suggested that family history and levels of chemicals in your brain may make some people more vulnerable.

What treatments are available for eating disorders?

  • Online self-help programmes are recommended as a first step for bulimia or binge eating disorder.
  • Talking therapies. See our information on talking therapies.
  • Medication. You may be offered medication to help treat underlying problems. They may be antidepressants or antipsychotics.
  • Admission to hospital. You may be admitted to hospital if you are very unwell or if other treatment hasn’t worked.

For more information on treatments, see our information on common treatments and support.

For more information on eating problems visit b-eat.

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  • Produced by Clare Foster, freelance health editor, and Nick Ridgman, Head of Health Content, Bupa UK, September 2017
    Next review due September 2020

    Bupa UK expert reviewers:

    • Naomi Humber, Psychology Services Manager, EAP
    • Stuart Haydock, Resilience Lead, Health Clinics
    • Sarah Deedat, Head of Behaviour Change

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