An eating disorder is when you have an unhealthy attitude to food, which can take over your life and make you ill.
It can involve eating too much or too little, or becoming obsessed with your weight and body shape.
But there are treatments that can help and you can recover from an eating disorder.
Men and women of any age can get an eating disorder, but they most commonly affect young women aged 13 to 17 years old.
Types of eating disorders
The most common eating disorders are:
- anorexia nervosa – when you try to keep your weight as low as possible by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or both
- bulimia – when you sometimes lose control and eat a lot of food in a very short amount of time (binging) and are then deliberately sick, use laxatives (medicine to help you poo), restrict what you eat, or do too much exercise to try to stop yourself gaining weight
- binge eating disorder (BED) – when you regularly lose control of your eating, eat large portions of food all at once until you feel uncomfortably full, and are then often upset or guilty
- other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – when your symptoms do not exactly match those of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, but it does not mean it's a less serious illness
OSFED is the most common, then binge eating disorder and bulimia. Anorexia is the least common.
If you or people around you are worried that you have an unhealthy relationship with food that's affecting your eating habits, you could have an eating disorder.
Symptoms of eating disorders include:
- spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape
- avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved
- eating very little food
- deliberately making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat
- exercising too much
- having very strict habits or routines around food
- changes in your mood
You may also notice physical signs, including:
- feeling cold, tired or dizzy
- problems with your digestion
- your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height
- not getting your period for women and girls
You can read more about the specific symptoms of:
It's important to remember that even if your symptoms do not exactly match those for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, you may still have an eating disorder.
Warning signs of an eating disorder in someone else
It can often be very difficult to identify that a loved one or friend has developed an eating disorder.
Warning signs to look out for include:
- dramatic weight loss
- lying about how much and when they have eaten, or how much they weigh
- eating a lot of food very fast
- going to the bathroom a lot after eating, often returning looking flushed
- excessively or obsessively exercising
- avoiding eating with others
- cutting food into small pieces or eating very slowly
- wearing loose or baggy clothes to hide their weight loss
Getting help for an eating disorder
If you think you may have an eating disorder, even if you're not sure, see a GP as soon as you can.
They'll ask you questions about your eating habits and how you're feeling, and will check your overall health and weight.
If they think you may have an eating disorder, they should refer you to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists.
It can be very hard to admit you have a problem and ask for help. It may make things easier if you bring a friend or loved one with you to your appointment.
You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from eating disorders charity Beat by calling their adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 or youth helpline on 0808 801 0711.
Getting help for someone else
It can be difficult to know what to do if you're concerned that someone you know has an eating disorder.
People with an eating disorder are often secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they may deny being unwell.
Let them know you're worried about them and encourage them to see a GP. You could offer to go along with them.
The eating disorder charity Beat also has information on:
- what to do if you're worried about a friend or family member
- what to do if you're worried about a pupil
- what to do if you're worried about an employee
- supporting someone with an eating disorder
You can recover from an eating disorder, but it may take time and recovery will be different for everyone.
After being referred to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists, they'll be responsible for your care.
They should talk to you about any other support you might need, such as for other mental or physical health conditions you have, and include this in your treatment plan.
Treatment will be different depending on the type of eating disorder you have, but will usually involve some kind of talking therapy.
You may also need regular health checks if your eating disorder is having an impact on your physical health.
It may also involve working through a guided self-help programme if you have bulimia or binge eating disorder.
Most people will be offered individual therapy, but those with binge eating disorder may be offered group therapy.
Read more about the different treatments for:
Treatment for other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) will depend on the type of eating disorder your symptoms are most like.
For example, if your symptoms are most like anorexia, your treatment will be similar to the treatment for anorexia.
What causes eating disorders?
We do not know exactly what causes eating disorders.
You may be more likely to get an eating disorder if:
- you or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug addiction
- you have been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight
- you're overly concerned with being slim, particularly if you also feel pressure from society or your job – for example, ballet dancers, jockeys, models or athletes
- you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality or are a perfectionist
- you have been sexually abused
Page last reviewed: 16/01/2018
Next review due: 16/01/2021