About Eating Disorders

AboutEating disorders refer to a group of conditions that are characterised by disordered eating patterns and an over-concern about weight, shape and body image. The most common eating disorders are
anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is defined as a refusal to maintain body weight at or above the minimal normal weight for height and age. People suffering from anorexia nervosa may also experience intense fear of gaining weight or being fat, a preoccupation with body weight and shape and may place exaggerated influence of body weight on their self-evaluation. In women, periods may stop due to low weight.

Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is defined as periods of binge-eating which are characterised by eating an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time and under similar circumstances, and a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode. This is then followed by recurrent compensatory behaviours to prevent weight gain such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas or other medications; fasting and/or excessive exercise. As in anorexia nervosa, there is a preoccupation with body weight and shape and self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body weight.

Atypical eating disorders
Atypical eating disorders refer to conditions that are very similar to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa as described above but that not all symptoms may be present.

Who is affected by eating disorders?

Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, social class, or cultural or racial background. Although it is more common among women, men also develop eating disorders and research suggests that there are between 10% and 20% of male sufferers. This figure may be higher because eating disorders are less commonly recognised in men. Eating disorders often appear around the ages of 14­ to 25; however, it is not unusual for an eating disorder to present itself in middle age.

What causes eating disorders?

There are many reasons why someone might develop an eating disorder. Often there is no single cause but a series of factors involved that contribute to development of the disorder. Research has highlighted some common psychological, interpersonal, social and biological factors that people with eating disorders may experience. It's important to recognise that the factors contributing to an eating disorder are unique to each individual and some people will develop an eating disorder without experiencing these difficulties:

Psychological factors:

  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of lack of control
  • Perfectionism and a need to please others
  • Obsessive tendencies
  • Difficulties in expressing emotions

Interpersonal factors (relationships with others around us) that could be triggered by:

  • Bullying
  • Pressures at work, school or home
  • Bereavement and loss
  • Transitions in life such as moving house, changing jobs, or leaving home
  • Physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse

Social factors:

  • Societal and cultural pressures to be a particular body shape
  • Valuing people based on physical appearance rather than inner qualities
  • Positive reactions from others about weight loss
  • Negative stereotypes about obesity

Biological factors:

  • Genetically-inherited predispositions
  • Research has suggested that certain chemicals in the brain that control, hunger, appetite and digestion are imbalanced in people suffering from eating disorders.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that arise from a variety of factors. Once established, they can create self-perpetuating cycles that are unhelpful and destructive.

Find out how we carry out assessments and treat eating disorders.