Health A to Z
Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour.
A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.
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Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. The most common eating disorders are:
Some people, particularly those who are young, may be diagnosed with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). This means you have some, but not all, of the typical signs of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex.
An eating disorder may be associated with biological, genetic or environmental factors combined with a particular event that triggers the disorder. There may also be other factors that maintain the illness.
Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person having an eating disorder include:
Doctors sometimes use a questionnaire to help identify people who may have an eating disorder. The questionnaire asks the following five questions:
If you answer "yes" to two or more of these questions, you may have an eating disorder.
It can often be very difficult to identify that a loved one or friend has developed an eating disorder.
Warning signs to look out for include:
It can be difficult to know what to do if you're concerned about a friend or family member. It's not unusual for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they may deny being unwell.
You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from the eating disorders charity Beat by calling their adult helpline on 0808 801 0677. They also have a designated youth helpline on 0808 801 0711. Both helplines are open every day of the year from 4pm to 10pm.
A 2015 report commissioned by Beat estimates more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Eating disorders tend to be more common in certain age groups, but they can affect people of any age.
Around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men will experience anorexia nervosa at some point. The condition usually develops around the age of 16 or 17.
Bulimia is around two to three times more common than anorexia nervosa, and 90% of people with the condition are female. It usually develops around the age of 18 or 19.
Binge eating affects males and females equally and usually appears later in life, between the ages of 30 and 40. As it's difficult to precisely define binge eating, it's not clear how widespread it is, but it's estimated to affect around 5% of the adult population.
If an eating disorder isn't treated, it can have a negative impact on someone's job or schoolwork, and can disrupt relationships with family members and friends. The physical effects of an eating disorder can sometimes be fatal.
Treatment for eating disorders is available, although recovery can take a long time. It's important that the person affected wants to get better, and the support of family and friends is invaluable.
Treatment usually involves monitoring a person's physical health while helping them deal with the underlying psychological causes. This may involve:
There's a range of other healthcare services that can help, such as support and self-help groups, and personal and telephone counselling services. See the "Useful links" section on this page for more information.