What are eating disorders?
||What are the signs of anorexia and bulimia?
Worries about weight, shape and eating are common, especially
among young girls. Being very overweight or obese can cause a lot
of problems, particularly with health. Quite often, someone who is
overweight can lose weight simply by eating more healthily. It
sounds easy, but they may need help to find a way of doing
What are eating disorders?
A lot of young people, many of whom are not overweight in the
first place, want to be thinner. They often try to lose weight by
dieting or skipping meals. For some, worries about weight becomes
an obsession. This can turn into a serious eating disorder. This
factsheet is about the most common eating disorders –
anorexia nervosa and bulimia
- Someone with anorexia nervosa worries all the
time about being fat (even if they are skinny) and eats very
little. They lose a lot of weight and their periods become
irregular or stop.
- Someone with bulimia nervosa also worries a
lot about weight. They alternate between eating next to nothing,
and then having binges when they gorge themselves. They vomit or
take laxatives to control their weight.
Both of these eating disorders are more common in girls, but do
occur in boys. They can happen in young people of all backgrounds
- Weight loss or unusual weight changes.
- Periods being irregular or stopping.
- Missing meals, eating very little and avoiding ‘fattening’
- Avoiding eating in public, secret eating.
- Large amounts of food disappearing from the cupboards.
- Believing they are fat when underweight.
- Exercising excessively, often in secret.
- Becoming preoccupied with food, cooking for other people,
calorie counting and setting target weights.
- Going to the bathroom or toilet immediately after meals.
- Using laxatives and vomiting to control weight or sometimes
other medications/herbal remedies to lose weight.
It may be difficult for parents or teachers to tell the
difference between ordinary dieting in young people and a more
serious problem. If you are concerned about your child’s weight and
how they are eating, consult your GP.You can also seek help and
advice from other agencies.
What effects can eating disorders
What causes eating disorders?
Person with this condition can have physical and emotional
problems. Some of these include:
- Feeling excessively cold.
- Headaches and dizziness.
- Changes in hair and skin.
- Tiredness and difficulty with normal activities
- Damage to health, including stunting of growth and damage to
bones and internal organs.
- Loss of periods and risk of infertility.
- Anxiety and depression.
- Poor concentration, missing school, college or work.
- Lack of confidence, withdrawal from friends.
- Dependency or over-involvement with parents, instead of
It’s important to remember that, if allowed to continue
unchecked, both anorexia and bulimia can be life-threatening
conditions. Over time, they are harder to treat, and the effects
become more serious.
Eating disorders are caused by a number of different things:
- Worry or stress may lead to
comfort eating. This may cause worries about getting fat.
- Dieting and missing meals lead to craving for food, loss of
control and over-eating.
- Anorexia or bulimia can develop as a complication of more
extreme dieting, perhaps triggered by an upsetting event, such as
family break-down, death or separation in the family, bullying at
school or abuse.
- Sometimes, anorexia and bulimia may be a way of trying to feel
in control if life feels stressful.
- More ordinary events, such as the loss of a friend, a teasing
remark or school exams, may also be the trigger in a vulnerable
Who can develop an eating disorder?
Some of the factors which increase the likelihood of having an
eating disorder include:
- being female
- being previously overweight
- lacking self-esteem
- being perfectionistic.
Obsessional behaviour is often seen in young people with eating
Some people are more at risk than others. Sensitive or anxious
individuals, who are having difficulty becoming independent from
their families are also more at risk. Eating disorders can also run
in families. The families of young people with eating disorders
often find change or conflict particularly difficult, and may be
unusually close or over-protective.
Where can I get help?
||When professional help is needed
If you think a young person may be developing an eating
disorder, don’t be afraid to ask them if they are worried about
themselves. Quite often young people with eating disorders are
unable to acknowledge there may be a problem, and will not want you
to interfere and may become angry or upset.
However, you may still be worried and you can seek advice from
professionals in different agencies e.g. GP, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services
(CAMHS). It is important that you feel supported and not
What can I do to help?
These simple suggestions are useful to help young people to
maintain a healthy weight and avoid eating disorders.
- Eat regular meals – The British Dietetic Association
recommends eating regularly throughout the day which usually means
three main meals and three nutritious snacks in between such as
fruit, yogurt or nuts.Too many sugary or high fat snacks should be
- Try to eat a ‘balanced’ diet – one that contains all the types
of food your body needs including carbohydrate foods such as bread,
rice, pasta or cereals with every meal.
- Don’t miss meals – long gaps encourage overeating.
- Take regular exercise.
- Try not to be influenced by other people skipping meals or
commenting on weight.
When eating problems make family meals stressful, it is
important to seek professional advice.
Your GP will be able to advise you about what specialist help is
available locally and will be able to arrange a referral.
This will usually be to the local CAMHS.
If the eating disorder causes physical ill health, it is
essential to get medical help quickly.
If untreated, there is a risk of infertility. thin bones
(oesteoporosis), stunted growth and even death, but if
treated, most young people get better.
Janet aged 18 writes
||Annabelle's story aged 16
"Two years ago it was my ‘best friend’ and
now it’s my ‘enemy’! It no longer controls me or my family and
together we’ve pushed it away. I couldn’t have done it alone. I
wouldn’t have made it to uni if it wasn’t for my mum and the school
nurse who convinced me to see a professional team….that took
them six months! …….. I was really pig-headed! I am talking
It started when I was 15 and my friends and I tried the ‘south
beach diet’….. most of them dropped out but I stuck with it…. I’ve
always been competitive.
At home there was so much pressure to get ‘A’ grades; at last
there was a different focus. I became obsessed with counting
calories and even kept a food diary. I lost more weight but still
felt huge and ‘ugly’ and wanted to lose more….. my friends tried to
stop me and said they were worried but I didn’t care.
Slowly, I stopped going out with them, preferring to stay in and
do my sit-up regime. I thought about taking slimming pills but was
too scared so I bought laxatives instead…. I felt so driven to lose
weight; the thought of putting on an ounce scared me to death. I
remember feeling weepy and very tired. At its worst, my fingers and
toes went blue!
"I’m 16 now, but I think I started having a problem when I was
12. I became very worried about my weight and my body. I had put on
a bit of weight and was very upset when a boy in my class called me
fat. I remember feeling that even if I was doing very well in
school, things weren’t quite right and I wasn’t quite good
Gradually I ate less, lost masses of weight, but still believed
that I was fat. Sometimes I “felt” fat and this made me feel very
down. I stopped seeing most of my friends, and spent more and more
time thinking about food and my body.
I was always checking the shape of my stomach and bottom – at 20
or 30 times a day, looking at them in great detail. I felt very
cold at times, and found it harder and harder to find the energy to
do things as I was eating less and less.
I also weighed myself at least five times a day, and if my
weight had not gone down, I checked my stomach, and tried dieting
even more. Sometimes I binged on cakes and chocolate. I felt very
guilty afterwards and would usually be sick so that I could get rid
of the food and loose some weight. It felt as if I was going round
and round in circles, with no means of escape.
One of my teachers noticed that I wasn’t eating lunch and that I
had become thin (or at least she thought I had). She spoke to my
parents and I was taken to a clinic.
At first I didn’t want to know and I didn’t want to be helped.
However, I started a treatment called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
(CBT). I learned to look at the links between my thoughts, feelings
and behaviour, but more importantly, I learned that I could eat
regularly - without putting on weight.
Gradually I put on some weight and worked on my checking and
weighing behaviour. It wasn’t easy to get better. I slowly started
to eat the foods that I used avoid. Sometimes I still find myself
thinking the way I used to, but now I know I that this is only one
way of thinking, one way of being, and most of the time to chose
not to do this.
I love going out clubbing with my friends now and I don’t argue
quite so much with my parents, well at least not about food