Eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. . The best-recognised eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, but there are a number of variants.

Eating disorders are typically seen in girls and young women, particularly those aged 12 to 20, but it has been estimated that around 11% of those with an eating disorder are male. These disturbances in eating could impair physical health and psychosocial functioning, and can even cause death in severe cases.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an illness where people keep their body weight low, either by refusing to eat enough to maintain a normal body weight, vomiting, the use of laxatives or excessively exercising. Sufferers have the impression that they are overweight and often picture themselves as being fat even though they are already underweight. If it occurs before puberty, anorexia may lead to stunted growth. In teenage girls and young women, menstrual abnormalities may occur including amenorrhoea (the cessation of periods). These disturbances in oestrogen levels can also pose a significant risk to bone health. Other long-term risks of anorexia include difficulties conceiving, or possibly infertility.

Some examples of other signs of anorexia may include:

  • Pre-occupation with bodyweight and/or food
  • Lying about having eating or what they have eaten
  • Excessive counting of calories in food
  • Avoiding eating with other people
  • Depression and/or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Growth of downy (soft and fine) hair all over your body (called Lanugo)
  • Becoming irritable and moody

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa sufferers are obsessed with the fear of gaining weight. There is a recurring pattern of eating large amounts of food (binge eating), which is usually followed by self-induced vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting or exercising excessively (purging). People with bulimia often feel a lack of self-control and have an excessive concern with their bodyweight and shape. People with bulimia often have a weight in a healthy range and hide their binge eating/purging behaviour pattern from others. Many bulimics have poor dental health due to regular vomiting; vomit is acidic and can erode teeth in a characteristic way.

Some examples of other signs of bulimia may include:

  • Being secretive about bulimic episodes
  • Disappearing soon after eating
  • Mood swings and anxiety
  • Depression and low self-esteem
  • Swelling of the hands and feet
  • Periods stop (amenorrhea) or are irregular
  • Weight fluctuations

Other eating disorders

There are a number of other types of eating disorders that are less common, which can include:

  • Binge Eating Disorder: people suffering from this eating disorder may regularly eat very large quantities of food, typically faster than normal or even if they are not hungry, in a short period of time (binge eating) and experience a loss of control, guilt and disgust after doing so. The periods of binge eating are not followed by purging to control bodyweight. The binge eating periods are usually planned and take place in secret, and can include “special” binge foods. Binge eating disorder may also be associated with overweight or obesity, and is typically more common in adults than in teenagers.

  • Emotional overeating: this occurs when a person eats large quantities of food in response to negative emotions (for example, feeling anxious or depressed) instead of because of hunger. Emotional overeating can lead to weight gain, which can eventually lead to psychological issues such as low self-esteem.

For more information about eating disorders, visit the B-eat website