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Eating disorders

It is estimated that around 1.6 million people in the UK are eating disordered . This figure is likely to be much higher as it only represents those individuals who have sought and received treatment. It is therefore likely that there are many more individuals who are suffering with some form of disordered eating.

Eating disorders can be a way of coping with life. Rather than using food to satisfy hunger a person with an eating disorder may use food as a way of dealing with difficult feelings and/or thoughts or as a way of coping with stressful events and situations.

The three main eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. There are many more eating disorders and eating related problems these are often referred to as Atypical Eating Disorders or Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (ED-NOS). It is not uncommon for individuals to develop more than one type of eating disorder during their lifetime; this could mean that they are dealing with more than one disorder simultaneously or that they recover from one type of disorder and at a later date develop another.

Anorexia Nervosa

This is perhaps the most well known of the eating disorders, it is however the least common of the main three disorders. It is also the one with the highest mortality rate. Anorexia Nervosa translated means “nervous loss of appetite”. This is misleading as it is usual for people living with anorexia to feel intense hunger however they are unable or perhaps frightened to satisfy their hunger.
If you are living with anorexia it is likely that you severely restrict your daily food and drink intake and perhaps engage in excessive exercise to burn off further calories. As a result of this calorie restriction you will be underweight. You are likely to be preoccupied with food perhaps spending time planning what you will eat, when and where you will eat it. You will think that you are much larger than you actually are and will be extremely frightened of gaining weight.

The physical effects of any eating disorder can be extremely damaging. In addition to extreme weight loss some short term effects of anorexia are:

  • Abdominal pains
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Growth of downy hair on the body
  • Dry skin
  • Loss of bone mass
  • Infrequent or loss of periods in women

These effects can be reversed once the individual begins eating a balanced diet, however some women may have difficulty in becoming pregnant and both men and women are at risk of developing osteoporosis.

There are many psychological problems related to anorexia which include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • A desire to isolate oneself
  • Lack of concentration
  • Anger

Bulimia Nervosa

People who suffer with bulimia nervosa are often a normal weight for their height and build which makes it less likely that the condition is noticed by others, this can mean that the problem can continue undetected for many years. A person with bulimia will binge not because they are physically hungry but as a way of coping or of filling an ‘emotional void’.

If you are living with bulimia is it likely that your weight will be fairly normal for your build and height, although your weight may go up and down. It is likely that your perception of your body shape and weight is distorted and you believe yourself to be bigger than you actually are. You will be preoccupied with food and may feel out of control around it. It is not uncommon for you to skip meals as a way of restricting your calorie intake. You will also binge on large, or what you perceive to be large, amounts of food, usually high fat, high sugar food types. In a bid to stop yourself gaining weight from these binges you will try to rid yourself of this food. You do this by vomiting although you might also use laxatives, diuretics, enemas. You may also engage in excessive exercise to prevent weight gain. It is likely that you feel intense shame and guilt about your difficulties with food.

Although the physical appearance of a person living with bulimia is often ‘normal’ there are serious health consequences associated with the disorder. Some of the physical effects are:

  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Dehydration and related electrolyte imbalances, such as potassium deficiency
  • Tooth decay and bad breath
  • Sore throat and damage to lining of throat
  • Damage to salivary glands
  • Increased risk of problems with internal organs including heart failure

Some of the psychological effects of bulimia are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of concentration
  • Sleep disruption
  • Social isolation

Binge Eating Disorder

It is believed that there are many more people who suffer with Binge Eating Disorder than any other type of eating disorder. It is similar to bulimia in that sufferers feel compelled to binge, however they do not take action to rid themselves of the food consumed during their binges. It is for this reason that many people with binge eating disorder are overweight and quite possibly obese. A variation of binge eating disorder is compulsive overeating. Rather than binging the person who suffers with compulsive eating will ‘graze’ on food throughout the day, eating when they are not hungry but feeling unable to stop. As with bulimia, binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating are related to emotions not physical hunger and are used as a way of coping.

If you are living with Binge Eating Disorder you probably feel unable to control yourself around food and unable to stop yourself eating, even if you begin to feel uncomfortably full. You might feel embarrassed about the quantities of food you eat and it is likely that you eat little when you are with others, saving your binges for when you are alone.

The biggest physical effect of binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating is obesity. Obesity may contribute to the onset of many conditions such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Some types of cancer
  • Joint pain and/or arthritis

Psychological effects of binge eating disorder can be:

  • Depression
  • Social isolation

Atypical Eating Disorders

This category includes types of disordered eating that do not fit exactly into the above categories. There are also other types of eating disorder such as Bulimarexia – a combination of anorexia and bulimia, Orthorexia in which a sufferer will only eat a specific type of food which they deem to be healthy, Pica where the individual consumes non-food items like coal, tissue paper and chalk and chew and spit behaviour, where food is spat out rather than swallowed. It is important to remember that if you feel concerned over your relationship with food help is available for you.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or social class. Statistically young women between the ages of 12-25 are more likely than any other group to develop an eating disorder; however research has shown that it is not uncommon for older women and men to suffer with some form of eating disorder. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of men diagnosed with eating disorders. Research has indicated that around 10% of the people being treated for eating disorders are male. This figure could be much higher as it is likely that there are many more men who have not sought help.

The media portrayal of the ‘perfect body’ and social pressure to be thin are often blamed for the development of eating disorders. This can be the case however it is unlikely that it will be the only reason. Eating disorders are complex and rather than there being one specific cause there are generally a number of different reasons for a person developing an eating disorder. Some of these reasons are:

Difficulty coping with stressful experiences

Many individuals develop an eating disorder in response to a stressful or traumatic event. This event could be bereavement, some form of abuse or difficulties at home or work. It is common for eating disorders to develop following significant life changes, such as going through puberty, uncertainty over sexuality, changing or leaving school or moving away from home. There are of course many other situations in which an individual may feel unable to cope and which could lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Conforming to the ‘ideal’

Pressure to appear a certain way can come from many sources, the media is often cited as the main culprit; however culture, friends, family and colleagues can all create pressure, sometimes unknowingly, that lead people to believe that they must look a certain way. Eating disorders are also more common in professions which demand a specific body shape and/or weight. For example dancers, models and athletes are often under a great deal of pressure to maintain a specific body weight.


Some personality traits can make a person to be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Low self esteem, a tendency towards perfectionism and poor social skills are all thought to make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder.


Genetic make-up may make a person more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Research has found that some individuals with eating disorders have certain chemical imbalances that relate to hunger control, appetite and digestion.

The above list provides just a few of the reasons that may lead to the development of an eating disorder. It is important to remember that although eating disorders and their development share similarities they are unique to each individual sufferer.

It is important to remember that help is available to help you beat your eating disorder. Many people who have an eating disorder experience feelings of guilt and shame which can make asking for help extremely difficult. One of the biggest and perhaps most difficult steps in dealing with an eating disorder is to ask for help. A good place to start is to make an appointment to visit your GP. In addition to assessing your general health your GP will be able to refer you to specialist services such as dieticians, nutritionists, psychologists and psychiatrists.

You can also contact the University Counselling and Wellbeing Service to arrange an appointment with a counsellor. Your counsellor can work with you to explore and address any difficulties and problems you are experiencing in relation to your eating disorder or other areas of your life.

You can contact the Counselling and Wellbeing Service on 0161 295 7008 or by email.

beat (Eating Disorders Association)
Telephone Helpline: 0845 634 1414
Email helpline:
In addition to providing information on eating disorders the beat website has online help and support which includes live chat and message boards. You can also check to see whether there is a support group in your area.

Anorexia & Bulimia Care (ABC)
Sufferer's Helpline: 01934 710679
Parent Helpline: 01934 710645
Provides information and advice to sufferers and their families.

MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too)
This organisation works to raise awareness of eating disorders in men. Their website provides information about male eating disorders and also has an online forum.

Overcoming Disordered Eating Part A This resource provides information about eating disorders together with strategies to help change problematic behaviours

Overcoming Disordered Eating Part B This resource follows on from Part A above. It provides techniques and strategies that can help change thinking patterns related to disordered eating.

Smart Eating A self help programme developed to help individuals overcome their eating problems.

RecoverYourLife A self harm support community that also provides support to individuals with eating disorders.

Self Help Guides produced by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust offer a wide range of information covering a range of issues affecting wellbeing including eating disorders.

The Mental Health Foundation provide a couple of booklets explaining both anorexia and bulimia as well as a lot more information on their website.

There are also many self-help books that you may find helpful.

Beating Eating Disorder Step by Step, Anna Paterson

Overcoming Binge Eating, Dr Christopher G Fairburn

Eating your Heart Out, Julia Buckroyd

The beat website has an extensive list of recommended titles on their website