Eating disorders

The term ‘eating disorder’ refers to a health condition which is extremely complex, in some cases even life threatening and is characterised by disturbances in a person's eating behaviours and habits. Someone suffering from an eating disorder may become obsessed with their weight and body shape which leads them to make unhealthy choices about food.

Eating disorders can affect people in many ways, physically, psychologically and socially for example. These disorders are considered to be a coping mechanism for emotional stress or may occur as a result of an underlying issue. Eating disorders are not necessarily about food but can be about a person’s sense of themselves. These conditions may effect anyone but people can and do recover.

The causes of eating disorders

There is no single cause of eating disorders but they tend to be as a result of a mixture of biological, psychological, familial and socio-cultural factors. Eating disorders often develop gradually as a response to an upset in a person’s life for example a traumatic event, a loss or major change in a person’s life, bullying or an overload of stress. Risk factors that can make someone more likely to have an eating disorder include: certain characteristics, an obsessive personality or an anxiety disorder for example, a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse, experiencing criticism for their eating habits, body shape or weight and 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)

Types of eating disorder

  • Anorexia Nervosa: A person suffering with this eating disorder will usually try to keep their weight as low as possible, usually below a healthy level for their age, height and sex. They will obsess over the need to lose weight and tend to use mechanisms such as excessive exercise or use laxatives, induce vomiting and greatly limit food intakes.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: This condition involves a person binge eating food and then making themselves sick on purpose (purging) or using medication to empty their bowels. Bulimia is often less obvious as the sufferer may maintain a body weight within the normal range of their age, sex and height.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: People with this eating disorder feel a need to overeat. They will binge eat without purging and will likely gain weight over a period of time.

If someone does not fit into a particular eating disorder category it does not mean they do not have an eating disorder. People can fluctuate between the three categories or have atypical eating disorders or eating disorders not otherwise specified.

How common are eating disorders?

The Department of Health estimates that up to 200,000 people may be affected by eating disorders. It is believed that 400 new cases emerge each year and on average 80 deaths occur as a result of eating disorders annually. It is estimated that 10% of cases of anorexia and bulimia are amongst males, though more recent studies suggest this figure could be as high as 25%. There has been a 67% increase in the number of men treated for eating disorders in the UK in the last five years.

Eating disorders are most prevalent in females in the 15-40 age group, where up to 2% may develop bulimia.

Recovering from an eating disorder

Recovery may take a long time but treatments are available. Treatment tends to involve monitoring and maintaining the person’s health while helping and encouraging them to deal with the underlying psychological causes. Dietary counselling may help the person maintain a health diet. The support of the sufferer’s family and friends is also very important.

If you think you may have an eating disorder consider visiting your GP, talking to friends and family, or there are a number of organisations you can contact.

  • In ROI: Bodywhys - The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland can be contacted on their helpline 1890 200 444.
  • In NI: Beat is a UK charity which helps people and their families deal with eating disorders. The ‘Beat’ helpline is available at 0845 634 1414.

The following links provide advice and information on eating disorders: