Eating disorders - About
This section gives information on:
What are eating disorders?
An eating disorder is a mental illness. You will use food to try to manage your feelings. If you have an eating disorder you will have an unhealthy relationship with food. This may be eating too much or too little food. You may become obsessed with food and your eating patterns if you have an eating disorder.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder. It doesn’t matter what your age, gender, cultural or racial background is. It is estimated that there are 725,000 people in the UK with an eating disorder.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
There are many different eating disorders. This factsheet covers Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and ‘Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders’.
You will try to keep your weight as low as possible if you have anorexia. You may think you are overweight even if others say you are dangerously thin. You may fear gaining weight and dismiss ideas to encourage you to eat more.
- Strict dieting. Such as counting the calories in food excessively, avoiding food you think is fattening and eat only low-calorie food.
- Being secretive. Such as hiding food, lying about what you have eaten and avoiding eating with other people
- Cut food into tiny pieces to make it less obvious that you have eaten little.
- Take appetite suppressants such as diet pills.
- Over exercise and get upset if something stops you from exercising.
- Become socially isolated
- Feel weak and have less muscle strength.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Dizzy spells,
- Constipation, bloating and stomach pain.
- Grow soft, fine hair on your body and face. Hair falling out.
- Feeling cold. Swollen feet, hands or face. Low blood pressure.
- Setting high standards and being a perfectionist.
- Sleeping problems.
- Getting irritable and moody.
- In girls and women periods can stop, become irregular or do not start.
- Loss of interest in sex
You will have an unhealthy eating cycle if you have bulimia. You will eat a lot of food and then do something to yourself to stop weight gain. You may make yourself vomit, take laxatives or over exercise. The eating is called ‘binging’ and what you do after is called ‘purging’. You will usually have an average body weight. This may mean other people do not notice you are having these problems.
- Feel guilty or ashamed after bingeing and purging.
- Are obsessed with food.
- Not able to control your eating.
- Have a distorted view of your body shape or weight.
- Have mood swings.
- Secretive about your bingeing and purging.
- Feel anxious and tense.
- Can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.
- Disappearing soon after eating.
- Calluses on the back of your hand. These are caused by forcing yourself to be sick.
- Stomach pain, bloating and constipation.
- Gastric problems.
- Being tired and not having energy.
- In girls and women - periods stop or are not regular.
- Frequent weight changes.
- Hands and feet swelling.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
You will eat a lot of food in a short period of time on a regular basis if you have BED. As with bulimia, you won't feel control of your eating. It is likely to cause you distress. You may feel disconnected and struggle to remember what you have eaten.
- Eat faster than normal during a binge.
- Eat when you’re not hungry and until you feel uncomfortably full.
- Eat alone or secretly.
- Have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating.
- Low self esteem and depression and anxiety.
- Overweight for your age and height.
- Tiredness and difficulty sleeping.
- Constipation and bloating.
Other eating disorders and eating problems
Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OFSED)
OFSED means you have symptoms of an eating disorder. But you don't have all the typical symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or BED. You could have a mixture of symptoms from different eating disorders. This does not mean that your illness is less serious.
Orthorexia is not a recognised clinical diagnosis. But many people struggle with the symptoms. Orthorexia is when you pay too much attention to eating food that you feel is healthy and pure. It may begin as a healthy diet but becomes rigorous and obsessive. You may become socially isolated because you plan your life around food.
You turn to food when you have negative feelings if you are an emotional overeater. These can be feelings like anxiety or sadness. Eating the food may help you to feel comforted.
Lots of people use food to help manage feelings, this is normal. But it may become a problem if this is the only management technique that you have. Or you are beginning to feel out of control. Emotional overeating can cause feelings of guilt and shame.
You eat non-food objects if you have Pica. Such as chalk, paint, stones and clothing. There is no nutritional benefit in these items. Some objects will pass through your body without harm. However pica can be very dangerous. It can lead to health concerns such as dental and stomach problems.
We still don’t understand what causes pica. There is a link to a lack of certain minerals such as iron. Some researchers believe it is a coping mechanism for some people.
Rumination disorder or ‘chew and spit’
You will chew and spit out food without swallowing it if you have rumination disorder. You may do this over and over again.
Selective Eating Disorder (SED)
You will only eat certain foods and may refuse to try other foods if you have SED. This is common in young children. But the problem can continue into adulthood.
How are eating disorders diagnosed?
Doctors use guidelines for diagnosing different mental health conditions, such as eating disorders. Guidelines say which symptoms you should have and how long for to get a particular diagnosis. These are the main guidelines:
- International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO)
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), produced by the American Psychiatric Association.
A health professional will assess you to work out if they think you have an eating disorder. As part of the assessment they will:
- ask about your feelings, thoughts and behaviours,
- see if there has been any rapid weight loss,
- look if your body mass index (BMI) is too high or too low,
- ask you about any diets that you are on,
- ask about your relationships,
- ask about your job, and
- think about different reasons for your symptoms.
What causes eating disorders?
We do not know exactly why someone develops an eating disorder. Some people believe that eating disorders develop because of social pressures to be thin. Social pressures could be social media and fashion magazines. Others believe is it is a way to feel in control.
Most specialists believe that eating disorders develop because of a mix of psychological, environmental and genetic factors.
Psychological factors could be:
- being vulnerable to depression and anxiety,
- finding stress hard to handle,
- worrying a lot about the future,
- being a perfectionist,
- controlling your emotions,
- having obsessive or compulsive feelings, or
- a fear of being fat.
Environmental factors could be:
- pressure at school,
- criticised for your body shape or eating habits,
- having difficult family relationships, or
- having a job or hobby where being thin is seen as ideal. Such as dancing or athletics.
Genetic factors could be:
- changes in the brain or hormone levels, or
- family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse.
What should I do if I think I have an eating disorder?
Ask for help early if you think that you may have an eating disorder. You have a greater chance of recovery if you seek help early. The first step is usually to make an appointment with your GP. They can refer you to specialist support if you need it.
If you aren’t ready to ask for professional help speak to someone that you trust such as friend or relative. You could also ask confidential charities such as ‘Beat’ for advice. Look at the Useful information section.
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