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Eating Disorders

The main features of eating disorders are:

  • abnormal eating behaviours, such as starving, over-eating, binge-eating
  • other abnormal behaviours such as inducing vomiting, abuse of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercising
  • physical health problems resulting from the above behaviours
  • extreme concerns about weight, shape and eating

Eating Disorders Include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa (AN) - where sufferers starve themselves, lose weight to 15% or more below normal, are terrified of weight gain, and have a loss of sexual interest (men) or loss of periods (women). Some people with AN also binge and purge.
  • Bulimia Nervosa (BN) - where sufferers binge-eat and then either induce vomiting, abuse laxatives or diuretics, exercise excessively, or starve, in order to compensate for bingeing. Sufferers are very concerned about weight or shape, but stay within the normal weight range.
  • Binge Eating Disorder - where sufferers binge-eat, but do not carry out any compensatory behaviours. Their weight may increase to above the normal range.
  • Obesity is not categorised as an eating disorder, however, someone who over-eats, is very concerned about their weight or shape, and is overweight can be helped in a similar way to the other eating disorders (see below).

The Extent of the Problem 

Mild forms of eating disorders are thought to be extremely common, especially in certain groups such as adolescent girls and young women. Bulimia nervosa affects about 2% of young women, while anorexia nervosa is much rarer affecting 3 out of 1000 young women. However, as many as 1 in 5 female students report some eating disorder symptoms like bingeing and vomiting. One in 10 sufferers of AN are male, 1 in 100 sufferers of BN are male.


Many, but not all people with eating disorders suffer from low or depressed mood. Most suffer from anxiety, particularly in relation to food and eating.


People with eating disorders often find they are preoccupied with thoughts about food, eating, weight and shape. This may mean that there is no opportunity to think about other problems such as difficulties in relationships or low self-esteem.


Behaviours such as starving, bingeing and vomiting or abuse of laxatives can lead to physical health problems such as disorders of the blood, gastric system, electrolyte (salt) balance and hence to kidney and heart problems. Some studies show that up to 1 in 5 sufferers from AN will die, due to one of the above problems, starvation or suicide. People who induce vomiting frequently are at particular risk of kidney or heart failure.


There is no one reason why a person develops an eating disorder. A wide range of factors may be relevant, such as problems in growing up and becoming independent, family problems, being teased about weight or shape, and low self-esteem. Although we cannot say that dieting causes eating disorders, most people who develop an eating disorder do so after starting to diet. Many people think that the value placed on thinness for women in Western culture is an important factor.


A small number of people (usually those with severe AN) will need to be treated in hospital. Others may attend a day treatment programme. Most people with eating disorders, however, will remain at home and can be helped by a series of regular appointments with a mental health professional such as a clinical psychologist or a community psychiatric nurse. People with milder eating disorders may be helped by a practice nurse or dietician. Someone suffering from BN may recover after 4 - 6 months of therapy, whereas it may take 1 - 2 years for someone with AN.

View a case study on Eating Disorders

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