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.
Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. The most common eating disorders are:
Some people, particularly young people, 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 such as 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.
There may be some biological or influencing factors, combined with an experience that may provoke the disorder, plus other factors that encourage the condition to continue.
Risk factors that can make someone more likely to have an eating disorder include:
Doctors sometimes use a questionnaire called the SCOFF questionnaire to help recognise people who may have an eating disorder. This involves asking 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 realise that a loved one or friend has developed an eating disorder.
Warning signs to look out for include:
If you are concerned about a friend or family member, it can be difficult to know what to do. It is common for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they are likely to deny being unwell.
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 five times more common than anorexia nervosa and 90% of people with bulimia are female. It usually develops around the age of 18 or 19.
Binge eating usually affects males and females equally and usually appears later in life, between the ages of 30 and 40. Because of the difficulty of precisely defining binge eating, it is not clear how widespread the condition is.
If it is not treated, an eating disorder 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 recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time. It is important for the person affected to want to get better, and the support of family and friends is invaluable.
Treatment usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping them to deal with the underlying psychological causes. This may involve:
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.