Eating Disorders

What is an eating disorder?

Worries about weight and shape and eating are common among young people.

Being overweight can cause problems with self-confidence and health, however many young people who are of normal weight are unhappy with their body shape and wish to be thinner.

Young people often try to lose weight by dieting, believing that weight loss will make them feel happier.

Young people who diet are at risk of developing an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa ​

In anorexia nervosa there is extreme weight loss, a preoccupation with weight and shape and fear of weight gain and eating.

Losing weight rapidly can be as worrying as being underweight and is also treated very seriously.

Bulimia nervosa​

In bulimia nervosa there is a pattern of repeated binge eating (eating more than you would like to eat, feeling out of control and finding it difficult to stop) along with repeated compensatory behaviours such as vomiting or laxative abuse and an overconcern about shape and weight.

How common are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are common in teenagers.  

Around 1% of young people have a diagnosis of either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. One in ten people with an eating disorder is male.

Even more have eating difficulties or concerns about weight and shape which may not meet be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa but are still a significant problem and may progress to a more serious eating disorder.

Did you know? One in ten people with in an eating disorder are male.

Early warning signs

Early warning signs of eating disorders

  • Physical: weight loss, vomiting, dizziness, loss of energy and weakness, poor sleeping.
  • Psychological: increased preoccupation with body size, weight and shape.
  • Behaviour change: eating alone or missing meals, secretiveness, hiding food, frequent visits to the cloakroom, taking a long time to eat meals, cutting food into small pieces, restricting the range of foods eaten, over exercising, wearing baggy clothes.

Other signs

Other non-specific signs which often accompany them

  • Psychological: low self-esteem, frequent negative comments about themselves, low mood, increased anxiety.
  • Social: withdrawal from family and friends, loss of interest in friends and activities, poor concentration, difficult family relationships.
  • Behaviour change: extreme perfectionism, obsessional rewriting or revision of homework assignments, taking excessive time to complete work (may lead to work not being handed in).

Importance of early intervention

There is evidence that if eating disorders are identified and treated early the outcome is very much better.

If eating disorders are not treated, they can become entrenched and can start to affect the young person’s physical and mental health making it hard for them to function normally.

Learn more about eating disorders

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Page last reviewed: 14 September, 2021