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Eating disorders - overview

4-minute read

Eating disorders are a serious mental health condition that can have a significant physical and emotional impact on those affected. The condition is common in young people, mainly female adolescents and young women, but males can also be affected.

What is an eating disorder?

There are several different types of eating disorder. The four most common are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED).

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that all involve an unhealthy relationship with food and eating, and often an intense fear of being overweight.

If you have an eating disorder you may experience one or more of the following:

  • You have a preoccupation and concern about your appearance, food and gaining weight.
  • You are extremely dissatisfied with your body – you would like to lose weight even though friends or family worry that you are underweight.
  • You are afraid of gaining weight.
  • You let people around you think you have eaten when you haven't.
  • You are secretive about your eating habits because you know they are unhealthy.
  • Eating makes you feel anxious, upset or guilty.
  • You feel you are not in control around food.
  • You keep checking your body - for example, weighing yourself or pinching your waist.
  • You make yourself vomit or use laxatives in order to lose weight.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of background.

What causes eating disorders?

It is unlikely that an eating disorder has one single cause. It's much more likely to be due to a combination of many factors, events, feelings or pressures that lead to you feeling unable to cope.

These may include low self-esteem, problems with friends or family relationships, the death of someone special, problems at school, college, university or work, lack of confidence, or sexual or emotional abuse. Many people talk about simply feeling too fat or 'not good enough'. You might use food to help you deal with painful situations or feelings without even realising it.

In cases where there are high academic expectations, family issues or social pressures, you may focus on food and eating as a way of coping.

Traumatic events can trigger an eating disorder. These include bereavement, being bullied or abused, a divorce in the family or concerns about sexuality. Someone with a long-term illness or disability (such as diabetes, depression, blindness or deafness) may also have eating problems.

Some studies have shown there are genetic factors involved. In other words, some people will be more likely to develop an eating disorder because of their genetic make-up.

Who is affected by eating disorders?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, sex or cultural or racial background.

Eating disorders are estimated to affect around 4% of people in Australia or around 1 million people.

What should I do if I think I have an eating disorder?

People with eating disorders often say the eating disorder is the only way they feel they can stay in control of their life. But as time goes on, it is the eating disorder that starts to control them. If you have an eating disorder, you may also have the urge to harm yourself, or misuse alcohol or drugs.

Talk to someone you trust if you think you have an eating disorder. For example, you might have a close friend or family member you could speak to. There are also several organisations that you can talk to, such as the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

Your doctor can also give you advice and talk to you about getting a diagnosis and possible treatment options, which will depend on your individual circumstances and the type of eating disorder you have.

Worried that a friend or relative has an eating disorder?

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, it can be difficult to know what to do. It is common for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they are likely to deny being unwell.

You can talk in confidence to an adviser from the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2018

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