Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour. A young person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.
Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. They are often the young person’s way of expressing emotional distress, and are linked to negative beliefs about themselves, the world and their relationships with others.
The most common eating disorders are:
Some people, particularly those who are young, may be diagnosed with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). This means you have some, but not all, of the typical signs of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
What causes eating disorders?
Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex. An eating disorder may be associated with biological, genetic or environmental factors combined with a particular event that triggers the disorder. There may also be other factors that maintain the illness.
Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person having an eating disorder include:
- having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse
- being criticised for eating habits, body shape or weight
- being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job; for example, ballet dancers, models or athletes
- certain underlying characteristics; e.g. having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist
- particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special
- difficult relationships with family members or friends
- stressful situations; for example, problems at work, school or university
Spotting an eating disorder in others
It can often be very difficult to identify if a child or young person has developed an eating disorder. Warning signs to look out for include:
- missing meals or feeling uncomfortable, or refusing to eat in public places, such as at a restaurant
- complaining of being fat, even though they have a normal weight or are underweight
- repeatedly weighing themselves and looking at themselves in the mirror
- making repeated claims that they've already eaten, or they'll shortly be going out to eat somewhere else and avoiding eating at home
- cooking big or complicated meals for other people, but eating little or none of the food themselves
- use 'pro-anorexia' websites
It can be difficult to know what to do if you're concerned about a child in your care. It's not unusual for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they may deny being unwell.
Use the links below to read more about approaching and talking to your child about eating disorders:
You can talk in confidence to an adviser from the eating disorders charity, Beat, by calling their helpline on 0345 634 1414. They also have a designated youth helpline on 0345 634 7650.
If an eating disorder isn't treated, it can have a negative impact on school and home life, disrupting relationships with carers, family members and friends. The physical effects of an eating disorder can sometimes be fatal. Treatment for eating disorders is available, although recovery can take a long time.
There are a range of other healthcare services that can help, see the section below.