Eating disorders: key facts
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What are eating disorders?
Many ‘eating styles’ can help us to stay
healthy - but some are driven by an intense fear of becoming fat.
These can damage our health and are called eating disorders. The
two most common problems are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.
We describe them separately here, but the symptoms are often
Who gets eating disorders?
They are 7 to 10 times more common in women
than in men.
What causes eating disorders?
We do not know for certain, but important
- Longstanding unhappiness which may show itself through
- Control - losing weight can make us feel good and in
- Puberty - anorexia reverses some of the physical changes of
puberty. You can see it as putting off some of the challenges of
becoming an adult.
- Family - saying “no” to food may be the only way you can
express your feelings.
- Depression - binges may start off as a way of coping with
- Low self-esteem.
- Social pressure - Western culture, particularly the media,
idealises being thin.
- Genes may play a part.
Anorexia Nervosa - signs and symptoms
- worrying more and more about your weight
- eating less
- exercising more
- being unable to stop losing weight, even when
you are below a safe weight
- using laxatives or other tablets to help you lose
- smoking and chewing gum to keep your weight
- losing interest in sex.
In women, periods become
irregular or stop.
In men and boys, erections
and wet dreams stop and testicles shrink.
When does it start? Usually
in the teenage years, but it can start at anytime.
Anorexia nervosa is a dangerous condition which can lead to
serious ill health and even death.
Bulimia Nervosa - signs and symptoms
- You worry more about your weight.
- You binge eat.
- You make yourself vomit and/or use
- You have irregular periods and feel
guilty about your eating pattern, but stay a normal weight.
When does it start?
Often in the mid-teens. But people don't usually seek help for it
until their twenties because they are able to hide it.
Binge Eating Disorder
This involves dieting and binge eating,
but not vomiting. It is distressing, but not so harmful
as bulimia. Sufferers are more likely to become overweight.
Can treatment help?
Helping yourself - Bulimia
can be tackled using a self-help manual with guidance from a
therapist. Anorexia usually needs help from a clinic or
- Keep a diary of what you eat, your thoughts
and feelings. You can use this to see if there are links between
how you feel, think and eat.
- Be honest with yourself and with others.
Remind yourself that you don’t always have to be achieving things –
let yourself off the hook sometimes.
- Think about joining a self-help group and
contact the b-eat.
Professional help - Your GP
can refer you to a specialist counsellor, psychiatrist or
psychologist. Your eating disorder may have led
to physical problems and some physical illnesses can minic
anorexia - so get a physical health check.
Treatments for anorexia
Psychiatric support - A
specialist will want to find out when the problem started and how
it developed. You will have your weight measured and will have a
physical examination. Although this can be difficult for someone
with anorexia, it will only be done with your permission and with
time for you to prepare for it. With your permission, the
specialist might want to talk with your family or a friend to
see what light they can shed on the problem.
Psychotherapy or counselling
- This involves talking to a therapist about your thoughts and
feelings. It can help you to understand how the problem started,
and how you can change some of the ways you think and feel about
things. It can be upsetting to talk like this, but a good therapist
will help you to do this in a way which helps you to cope better
and to feel better. They will also help you value yourself more,
and rebuild your sense of self-esteem.
Advice and help with eating
- You may need vitamin supplements. A dietician may
talk to you about healthy eating. This can be difficult for someone
with an eating disorder, but professional are experiences in
raising these issues sensitively and will make sure you are ready
to discuss them.
Hospital admission - This is
only an option if you have lost so much weight that it is making
Compulsory treatment - This
only happens if someone is so unwell that their life or health is
in danger or they cannot make proper decisions for themselves and
need to be protected.
How effective is the
treatment? More than half recover well, although it can
take a long time.
Treatments for bulimia
Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - This can be done with a
therapist, with a self-help book, in group sessions, or with a
computer program. CBT helps you to look at the links between your
thoughts, feelings and actions.
Interpersonal Therapy - This
is usually done with an individual therapist. This treatment
focuses on your relationships with other people.
Eating advice - This helps
you to get back to regular eating, without starving or
Medication - Antidepressants can reduce the
urge to binge. Unfortunately, without the other forms of help, the
benefits wear off after a while.
How effective is the
treatment? About half of sufferers recover. Recovery
usually takes place slowly over a few months or many years.
This is an abridged version of our main
leaflet on Anorexia and
This leaflet is made available through the
generosity of the Charitable Monies Allocation Committee
of the mental health charity St Andrew's, Northampton.
© November 2012. Due
for review November 2014. Royal College of
Psychiatrists. You can link
to, download, print, photocopy and distribute this leaflet free of
charge. But you must not change it or repost it on a
Please note that we are unable to offer advice on individual cases. Please see our
advice on getting help.
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