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What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental illness that can affect people of any age or gender. They can present themselves in many different ways and there are a number of different types. However, the feature that connects them is that they all express themselves through a harmful relationship with food.

If you have an eating disorder, you may be constantly worried about your weight or appearance, even if you are perfectly healthy. You may overeat, undereat and become obsessed with your eating patterns. This unhealthy relationship with food can take over your life and make you ill.

Treatments are available that’ll help you manage and overcome your eating disorder. Seeing your GP is your first port of call to get help.

Symptoms of eating disorders

You may have a problem with your eating if you:

  • restrict what you eat or eat too much
  • struggle eating in social situation and eat in secret
  • spend a lot of time worrying about what you weigh and how your body looks
  • make yourself sick after eating, or take laxatives when you don’t need them
  • do too much exercise to burn of excess energy
  • have very strict rules around what you can and can’t eat
  • feel very anxious about eating
  • compare your body to other people's a lot
  • weigh or measure yourself a lot

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What are the most common types of eating disorder?

There are a number of different types eating disorders, all of which have their own symptoms. Some of the most common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa - this is when you take extreme measures to keep your weight down, such as not eating or only eating very little, or spending an unhealthy amount of time exercising.
  • Bulimia - you may under-eat for a while, then dramatically binge eat before attempting to get rid of the food as quickly as possible by vomiting or taking laxatives. You may also spend too much time exercising to help keep your weight down.
  • Binge eating disorder (BED) - you will regularly eat large amounts of food in one sitting and may feel that you have no control over this habit, and feel guilty afterwards.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) - if you don’t meet the criteria of anorexia, bulimia or BED, you may be given this diagnosis.

If you have an eating disorder, you may not recognise it in yourself, and often it’s family and friends that notice it first.

Should I see a GP?

If you think you have an eating disorder, or are not sure, you should contact your GP as soon as possible. They will ask more about your symptoms and how they are affecting your life. They’ll need to know about your eating habits, your medical history, about your weight and how you are feeling.

If they believe you have an eating disorder, you’ll be referred to a specialist team for further help.

It’s best to see your own GP in this case, as they can examine you physically if they need to. But if you need someone to speak to, or are looking for advice, our doctors can listen and help you with your next steps in confidence.

The eating disorder charity Beat are also available every day, on the phone or via webchat.

What causes eating disorders?

The answer to this question is more complex than many people think. The reasons behind an eating disorder are often unique to the particular person.

Causes can include:

  • A mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or low self esteem
  • A traumatic life experience, such as being abused
  • Being called fat, or being criticised about your body
  • A response to grief or loss
  • Stress at work or school
  • Social pressure, such as from social media
  • A family history of eating disorders, or other biological factors
  • Your personality and the traits you have

How do I help someone with an eating disorder?

If you think someone you know, it may be a family member or friend, may have an eating disorder, it is a good idea to speak to them about it to let them know you’re concerned.

They may be in denial, or feel very ashamed of their condition, so it’s important to be gentle with them. You can encourage them to see their GP, but again, be gentle with them. The charity Mind have more information on how you can help someone you think has an eating disorder here.

What’s the treatment for an eating disorder?

There are a number of different treatments for an eating disorder and it’ll depend on the type you’re diagnosed with and the symptoms you have. You’ll be given a unique treatment plan tailored to suit your needs by your specialist team.

This may include treatment including:

  • a talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • self-help programmes that are available online
  • group therapy
  • medication
  • hospital treatment
  • nutritional help

As mentioned, there are a number of different treatments available, and your specialist team will advise on the most suitable for you.

With help, you can overcome an eating disorder.