Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a common problem, yet they often go unnoticed, undiagnosed or untreated. Many myths surround eating disorders, the most popular being that they only affect young women and can be easily dealt with. 

Anorexia, binge eating and bulimia nervosa are types of eating disorder. They are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food, difficulty controlling how much is eaten, and making unhealthy choices about food that damage the body.

While its true that eating disorders are most common in teenage girls, 10% of cases affect men, and its not uncommon for the problem to develop in middle age. Eating disorders are often blamed on social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex, and may reflect underlying mental or psychological issues.

Problems with food can begin when eating is used to cope with feelings of boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness or guilt. Controlling what is eaten can become a way of controlling difficult emotions or coping with painful situations. There is unlikely to be a single cause, but a range of factors that leave people feeling unable to cope. These can include:

  • difficult family relationships,
  • the death of someone special,
  • stress,
  • problems at work, school or university, and
  • sexual or emotional abuse.

Low self-esteem can be a problem, as many people don't see themselves as being good enough, and blame this on being too fat.

Research shows a person's genetic make-up may also play a part. Abnormal levels of some brain and body chemicals have been linked to eating disorders. The attitudes of family and close friends can have an impact too. For example, a parent's attitude to eating can affect the child's food choices.

Recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time and its important that the person wants to get better. The support of family and friends is very valuable. Specialist care can help to deal with underlying psychological causes and physical effects. There are also support and self-help groups, and personal and telephone counselling services that can help.

The information shown here is Crown copyright and has been reproduced with the permission of NHS Direct. Last updated June 2007.