Eating disorders

Specialty of Psychology

What are eating disorders?

An eating disorder is when someone has a very unhealthy attitude to food, body weight or shape. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can prove fatal if not treated. The most common types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa: when an individual tries to keep their body weight as low as possible by not eating enough or exercising excessively, or both.
  • Bulimia: characterised by periods of binging and then purging by either use of laxatives or by being deliberately sick.
  • Binge eating disorder (BED: loss of control over eating, consuming large portions all at once until you feel ill and consumed by feelings of guilt.

Women are more likely to suffer from these types of disorders. They tend to occur in adolescence and are often accompanied by depression and anxiety disorders.

What symptoms do they present?

The common symptoms of eating disorders are:

  • Excessive exercise
  • Worrying a lot about your weight and body shape
  • Eating very little
  • Inducing vomiting after eating
  • Taking laxatives
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Having strict routines around food
  • Avoiding social settings that could involve food

Additional physical signs include:

  • A weight that is very low
  • Amenorrhoea (absence of menstruation)
  • Digestion problems
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling cold and dizzy

What causes eating disorders?

The exact causes of eating disorders are not known, however, some risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.
  • You have been criticised in the past for your weight or body shape.
  • You are overly concerned about your weight, for example, because of the nature of your work (e.g. being a model).
  • You suffer from anxiety and have low self-esteem.
  • You have been sexually abused.

Can eating disorders be prevented?

Prevention of eating disorders refers to any programs or interventions that reduce the risk factors of developing such a disorder. This includes primary and secondary prevention. Primary prevention aims to prevent the onset of an eating disorder, whilst secondary prevention tries to reduce the severity and duration of an eating disorder in someone who has already been diagnosed.

What is the treatment for eating disorders?

Treatment may differ slightly between each case and each type of eating disorder. Recovering from an eating disorder is entirely possible, but recovery can take a while and it will be a different experience for each person.

Physically, treatment will aim to increase your nutritional intake, stop purging and reduce excessive exercise. Together, these will allow the individual to reach a healthier weight. Further to this, treatment will involve individual, group and family psychotherapy sessions (e.g. CBT), nutritional counselling, medical monitoring and medication. Medications that may be given include anti-depressants, but medication must not be the only form of treatment for eating disorders, and may not be given to patients under the age of 18.

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