What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating habits can change because of psychological reasons. This can impact every aspect of a young person’s life. Learn about how and where to get help.

An eating disorder is a diagnosed type of disordered eating.

Disordered eating is when a person has an unhealthy relationship with food and eating. Disordered eating habits and behaviours can lead to the development of an eating disorder. We can all experience unhealthy eating habits from time to time.

Unhealthy eating habits come and go, but for some people, they can become a real problem. These behaviours, extreme concerns about weight or how our body looks, are a sign that it’s time to seek support.

Symptoms and Types of Eating Disorder

There are many different eating disorders. This covers Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and ‘Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders’.

Anorexia Nervosa

You will try to keep your weight as low as possible if you have anorexia. You may think you are overweight even if others say you are dangerously thin. You may fear gaining weight and dismiss ideas to encourage you to eat more.

• Strict dieting. Such as counting the calories in food excessively, avoiding food you think is fattening and eat only low-calorie food.
• Being secretive. Such as hiding food, lying about what you have eaten and avoiding eating with other people.
• Cut food into tiny pieces to make it less obvious that you have eaten little.
• Take appetite suppressants such as diet pills.
• Over exercising and get upset if something stops you from exercising.
• Becoming socially isolated.
• Making self-sick. This is known as purging. 

• Feel weak and have less muscle strength.
• Difficulty concentrating.
• Dizzy spells.
• Constipation, bloating and stomach pain.
• Grow soft, fine hair on your body and face. Hair falling out.
• Feeling cold. Swollen feet, hands or face. Low blood pressure.
• Setting high standards and being a perfectionist.
• Sleeping problems.
• Getting irritable and moody.
• In girls and women periods can stop, become irregular or do not start.
• Loss of interest in sex 


Bulimia Nervosa

You will have an unhealthy eating cycle if you have bulimia. You will eat a lot of food and then do something to yourself to stop weight gain. You may make yourself vomit, take laxatives or over exercise.
The eating is called ‘binging’ and what you do after is called ‘purging’. You will usually have an average body weight. This may mean other people do not notice you are having these problems.

• Eating large amounts of food. This is known as binging.
• Feel guilty or ashamed after binging and purging.
• Spending a lot of time thinking about food.
• Not able to control your eating.
• Have a distorted view of your body shape or weight.
• Have mood swings.
• Secretive about your binging and purging.
• Feel anxious and tense.
• Can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.
• Disappearing  

• Calluses on the back of your hand. These are caused by forcing yourself to be sick.
• Stomach pain, bloating and constipation.
• Gastric problems.
• Being tired and not having energy.
• In girls and women - periods stop or are not regular.
• Frequent weight changes.
• Hands and feet swelling.
• Damage to teeth. 


Binge eating disorder (BED)

You will eat a lot of food in a short period of time on a regular basis if you have BED. As with bulimia, you won’t feel in control of your eating. It is likely to cause you distress. You may feel disconnected and struggle to remember what you have eaten.

• Eat faster than normal during a binge.
• Eat when you’re not hungry and until you feel uncomfortably full.
• Eat alone or secretly.
• Have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating.
• Low self-esteem and depression and anxiety

• Overweight for your age and height.
• Tiredness and difficulty sleeping.
• Constipation and bloating. 


What are other types of Eating Disorders?

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED means you have symptoms of an eating disorder. But you don't have all the typical symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or BED. You could have a mixture of symptoms from different eating disorders. This does not mean that your illness is less serious. It used to be known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).

Orthorexia nervosa

Orthorexia is not a recognised clinical diagnosis. But many people struggle with the symptoms. Orthorexia is when you pay too much attention to eating food that you feel is healthy and pure. It may begin as a healthy diet but becomes rigorous and obsessive. You may become socially isolated because you plan your life around food.


You eat non-food objects if you have Pica. Such as chalk, paint, stones and clothing. There is no nutritional benefit in these items. Some objects will pass through your body without harm. However, pica can be very dangerous. It can lead to health concerns such as dental and stomach problems.

We still don’t understand what causes pica. There is a link to a lack of certain minerals such as iron. Some researchers believe it is a coping mechanism for some people. 

Rumination disorder or ‘chew and spit’

You will chew and spit out food without swallowing it if you have rumination disorder. You may do this over and over again. This can affect anyone.

Selective Eating Disorder (SED)

You will only eat certain foods and may refuse to try other foods if you have SED. This is common in young children. But the problem can continue into adulthood.


Diabulimia only effects people with type 1 diabetes. You will reduce or stop taking your insulin to try to lose weight. If you have type 1 diabetes you need your insulin to live.

Diabulimia is not a recognised medical term but it is what people call it.

What causes eating disorders?

We do not know exactly why someone develops an eating disorder. Some people believe that eating disorders develop because of social pressures to be thin. Social pressures could be social media and fashion magazines. Others believe it is a way to feel in control.

Most specialists believe that eating disorders develop because of a mix of psychological, environmental and genetic factors. 

Psychological factors could be:

• being vulnerable to depression and anxiety,

• finding stress hard to handle,

• worrying a lot about the future,

• being a perfectionist,

• controlling your emotions,

• having obsessive or compulsive feelings, or

• a fear of being fat.

Environmental factors could be:

• pressure at school,

• bullying,

• abuse,

• criticized for your body shape or eating habits,

• having difficult family relationships, or

• having a job or hobby where being thin is seen as ideal. Such as dancing or athletics.

Genetic factors could be:

• changes in the brain or hormone levels, or

• family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse.


Getting Help and Treatment

Successful treatment may come from a combination of approaches. Talking with a therapist, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy, can help to change unhealthy eating habits and thinking patterns. Nutrition education, family counselling, and support groups can provide further help. Weight loss programs can also help get long-term control over binge eating. If depression is an issue, a doctor may prescribe medicine.

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