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What Are Eating Disorders?




The term ‘eating disorder’ refers to a complex, potentially life-threatening condition, characterised by severe disturbances in eating behaviours.

Eating disorders can be seen as a way of coping with emotional distress, or as a symptom of underlying issues.

    • Eating disorders are not primarily about food
    • People can and do recover
    • Eating disorders can affect anyone
Eating disorders are characterised by a variety of disordered eating behaviours such as:
    • Self-starvation - by fasting and/or food restriction
    • Purging - by self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, or laxative abuse
    • Bingeing - by consuming quantities of food beyond what the body needs to satisfy hunger
An eating disorder can be very destructive, both physically and emotionally, and people can get trapped into the destructive cycle of the eating disorder without knowing how to cope with it.

An eating disorder is not just about food and weight, but also about a person’s sense of who they are.

Treatment of an eating disorder will require attention to both the physical and the psychological/emotional aspects of the person. Treatment must always include respect for and sensitivity for the overall well-being of the person.

The distress of a person experiencing an eating disorder, whether or not it is acknowledged, may have a considerable impact on family and friends.

The Main Eating Disorders

Although the term ‘eating disorder’ is applied to a wide range of disordered eating behaviours, there are three main classifications: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

    • A person will make determined efforts to attain and maintain a body weight lower than the normal body weight for their age, sex and height
    • They will be preoccupied with thoughts of food and the need to lose weight
    • They may exercise excessively and may engage in purging behaviours.
Bulimia Nervosa
    • A person will make determined efforts to purge themselves of any food eaten, sometimes following a binge, and often following ‘normal’ food intake.
    • They will engage in high-risk behaviours that can include fasting, excessive exercising, self-induced vomiting, and/or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medications
    • They may maintain a body weight within the normal range of their age, sex and height. As a result, bulimia is often less obvious than anorexia and can go unnoticed for longer.
Binge Eating Disorder
    • A person will engage in repeated episodes of bingeing without purging
    • They will likely gain considerable amounts of weight over time
    • They find themselves trapped in a cycle of dieting, bingeing, self-recrimination and self-loathing.
Just because somebody doesn’t fit in absolutely with one particular category doesn’t mean they don’t have an eating disorder. A large number of people with eating disorders don’t fit strictly into one category but fluctuate between the three.

People experiencing an eating disorder may

    • have dieted
    • have low self-esteem– though this may not be obvious, as people who develop eating disorders are often ‘high achievers’
    • show a marked over-concern with body shape, weight and size, and an obsession with food
    • see thinness as a magical solution to problems, while weight gain is feared
    • have difficulty identifying and expressing their real needs
    • view their body as larger than it actually is (distorted body image)
    • have problems around control
    • find it hard to talk about their feelings and to deal with conflict
    • be depressed and may become isolated
    • experience mood swings
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