Eating disorders

Here you’ll find information for young people, and families and friends, where there is concern that a young person may have an eating disorder.

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.

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.

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.

Physical effects of eating disorders

  • Trouble maintaining focus
  • Irritability
  • Mood changes which may affect relationship with others
  • Lack of nutrients from not eating can cause brain to shrink
  • Headaches can be regular and effect concentration
Hair and skin
  • Hair can thin, become brittle and can sometimes begin to fall out
  • You could grow hair in other unusual parts of the body, this is because your body is trying to keep itself warm
  • Skin may become dry because of dehydration and you might find you bruise easily
  • Self-induced vomiting can cause discolouration on hands and feet and looking pale
  • Brittle nails
Cheeks, mouth and throat

Stomach acids released during induced vomiting can cause:

  • tooth decay
  • staining
  • gum disease
  • swelling of cheeks
  • damage to your oesophagus causing sore throat and sometimes leading to blood in vomit
Heart and blood
  • Reduced heart rate can starve the brain of oxygen
  • Heart rate slows sending less blood around your body causing you to feel tired and cold which could also lead to heart failure
  • Low blood pressure can cause fainting and dizziness
Muscles, joints & bones
  • Bones can become thin and brittle dues to low hormones in the body, which could mean you are more at risk of fractures or brakes
  • Muscles and joints can become weaker
  • Body fluids & kidneys
  • If you are not drinking enough water or fluids this can result in dehydration and possibly kidney failure
  • Chemical imbalances in the body (minerals etc)caused by dehydration or induced vomiting and laxatives can affect the heart and other major organs
Intestines & stomach
  • Bloating, constipation, irregular bowel movements, diarrheal and abdominal cramps can be caused by irregular eating and laxative misuse
  • Binging can cause damage to the stomach. Irregular eating can cause delayed emptying of the stomach leading to bloating and feeling uncomfortable after eating
  • Hormones stop being produced which in girls cause their periods to stop compromising abilities to have children later in life
  • In boys it reduces testosterone levels which could stunt growth, voice breaking, muscle development

Myths about eating disorders

There are a lot of myths about eating disorders, visit our myths about eating disorders page to separate the facts from the fiction.

Further information and advice

Please visit the below pages for further advice for young people concerned about eating disorders, advice on eating disorders for parents and carers, and information on the eating disorders services offered by CAMHS.


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Page last reviewed: 20 December, 2023