What are eating disorders?
Everybody needs to eat to live – food is a very important part of our lives. We all like different foods and need different amounts of food. Just as people have different hair colour, we also have different bodies, heights, bone structures and builds. Body fat is stored in different places in our bodies, due to our genes. It is most important to have a healthy body weight (and a certain amount of body fat) to keep our bodies working.
Most people are unhappy with their bodies some of the time – thinking they are too fat, too thin, or just the wrong shape. This can be especially true for teenagers whose bodies are changing a lot, often very quickly. These worries will generally pass with time.
Many people try out diets and usually this is not a problem. However, sometimes, eating patterns can become unhealthy, for example if you eat too much or too little because you are feeling unhappy or stressed. It can be easier to control the way you eat than to cope with painful feelings. Over time, this can become dangerous to your emotional and physical health.
There are different kinds of eating problems and disorders – some are more serious than others. All eating difficulties are worrying. It’s when you or your friends or family become troubled by your eating habits, if you are losing weight and thinking about it all the time that it becomes an eating problem. For some young people, their eating problems become more serious and extreme. Either not eating or over-eating builds up and persists over many months so that their physical health, and in some cases even their lives, can be put at high risk. Their everyday life at home and in school may well be seriously disrupted. These young people are not well, either physically or emotionally. It is when eating problems like this reach a disturbing level that specialists use the term eating disorders – the most severe disorders being called anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. (Young Minds Factsheet)
If you have anorexia, you might think about food, fat content or calories all the time and try to avoid eating. Losing weight might make you feel in control, or give you a sense of success which makes you feel good, but it can be difficult to know when to stop. If you have anorexia, you might think about food, fat content or calories all the time and try to avoid eating. Losing weight might make you feel in control, or give you a sense of success which makes you feel good, but it can be difficult to know when to stop.
If you have anorexia, you might have some of the following symptoms.
- Loss of a lot of weight very quickly Eating less and less
- Feeling panicky if you have to eat a big meal
- Thinking about food all the time, maybe wanting to cook for others
- Comparing yourself with other people’s body size
- Loss of periods, or periods not starting in girls
- Being moody or down
- Trying to be perfect
- Feeling cold
- Not feeling like mixing with people
- Thinking you are fatter than you actually are
- Sleeping problems
- Growth of downy body hair
- Teeth problems through being sick a lot (Young Minds)
People with bulimia usually keep their weight steady, so it can be very hard to tell if someone has bulimia. However, they still think constantly about food and calories. As with anorexia, bulimia is a way of using food to cope with painful feelings – sometimes people can have symptoms of both disorders. Some people have had anorexia in the past, but become bulimic. People with bulimia ‘binge-eat’ – they eat a lot of food very quickly. This makes them feel guilty and bad about themselves, so they might try and get rid of the food by making themselves sick, or taking lots of laxatives (tablets or medicine that make you go to the toilet a lot). Some people feel so bad that they harm themselves, or misuse alcohol or drugs.
People with bulimia might get stuck in a cycle of bingeing when they feel upset or stressed, then punishing themselves by vomiting, starving themselves or taking laxatives. While they might seem like they are coping on the outside, inside they feel lonely and scared – like no-one can understand their problem.(Young minds)
Young person’s personal experience with eating disorder and self harm
Click on this link for a young person’s personal experience with eating disorder and self harm:
Ways of coping with eating problems and disorders
People with anorexia or bulimia may not accept that they have a problem, and may hide the fact they are not eating. They may lie about what they eat, or refuse any help. Sometimes though, this hides their feelings of fear about what is happening to them. Once they accept that they have a problem, there is a lot of help available!
It can be really hard to cope with an eating problem or disorder on your own. Talking to someone might help you feel more able to cope.
You are not alone and you are not mad or a freak. Your struggles are very common, but very difficult to overcome on your own, particularly if anorexia has taken over your mind completely. This can make you feel enslaved and you then definitely need professional support. Talk to someone you trust and ask for help.
Things you can do to help:
- Give them time, and listen
- Encourage them to seek help – it is important for them to get medical advice
- Let them know you are worried, and that you are there for them
- Remind them why you like and value them
- Include them in activities, even if they have not been joining in with things
- Get some information on eating problems and disorders (some of the places listed at the end can help with this)
- Make sure you look after yourself as well!
Click on this link for a mother’s experience of having a child with an eating disorder:
How to get help
If you are worried about your weight or feel you might have an eating disorder, you should get some help. Talk to:
- a member of the family
- a teacher or school nurse
- a counsellor or social worker
- your general practitioner.
- a B-EAT professional.(see details at end of this section)
Your GP or practice nurse is the best person for basic information and advice on diet and weight.
If you need more specialist help, they can refer you to a specialist or suggest that you see a professional at your local child and adolescent mental health service. This is a team of specialists including child and adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychotherapists and specialist nurses. They can help you to regain control of your eating and your weight. Most young people do get better with help.
Eating disorder services are presently better commissioned in the NHS and you should be able to get the treatment you need without too much delay. If there is a delay or if you wish to go private, there are many private providers that you could contact. If you want to talk to me, you are more than welcome to come and see me.
What is the treatment?
The good news is that both anorexia and bulimia can be treated. Treatment differs from person to person, but will most often involve a team of people such as a psychiatrist, psychologist and a dietician. Treatment may also involve family therapy. Medication is not the first line of treatment, but it can be used if there are other related issues such as anxiety or depression. In most instances the treatment can be delivered effectively and successfully in the community without the need for hospital admission.
Useful addresses and telephone numbers
Helpline: 08456 341 414
Youthline: 08456 347 650
Free 24/7 helpline for children and young people
Helpline: 0800 11 11
Textphone: 0800 400 222
Helpline: 08457 909 090
For people under 19 years. Confidential and anonymous email and telephone helpline support run by young volunteers.
Helpline: 02088 963 675
Email and online chat via website Monday and Wednesday 6:30 – 9:30 at
Email support for young people between 12 – 16 years. There is on-screen advice about all sorts of things e.g., bullying, relationships, exams, drugs, difficulties at home etc.