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Meantal Health Now factsheet: eating disorders

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are characterised by a severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviour that causes psychological, social, and sometimes, physical impairment.

There are three main categories:
  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder
A shared feature is the over-evaluation of the importance of shape and weight and their control, which is linked to their self-worth. 

Eating disorders can develop at any age, but the risk is highest for men and women aged between 13 and 17 years. Eating disorder affect more women than men but the percentage of men affected is increasing. 
Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression and are associated with a number of physical health problems, including an increased risk of mortality with anorexia nervosa. 

Common symptoms of eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa:

  • Strong desire to be think combined with an intense fear of weight gain and fatness.
  • Active maintenance of an unduly low body weight, for example, by strict dieting, excessive exercise, purging through self-induced vomiting or laxative misuse.

Bulimia nervosa:

  • Over-evaluation of shape and weight
  • Recurrent binge eating where an objectively large amount of food is eaten for the circumstances and there is an accompanying sense of a loss of control
  • Extreme weight-control behaviour, such as recurrent self-induced vomiting, regular laxative misuse, or marked dietary restriction. 

Binge-eating disorder

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating (like a ‘craving’) in the absence of extreme weight-control behaviour

Treatment and recovery

Specialist services, including inpatient services are available. Treatments should include education about the disorders, monitoring of physical health, and involvement of the whole family or carers as appropriate. Psychological treatments for eating disorders involve 20 or more sessions depending on the approach. For bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder specific guided self-help based on a cognitive behavioural with supportive sessions can be offered first. 

Recovery is more likely the earlier treatment is started. Eating disorders are difficult to overcome and are often long-term problems. 

Supporting people with eating disorders in the workplace

Look out for warning signs common to eating disorders such as the person being primarily concerned with the control of food, withdrawing from social circles and previous enjoyed activities, avoiding situations involving food such as eating with others, over-exercising, focussing on food such as recipes and nutritional content but not consuming the food, and low self-esteem. 

Approach the person in a non-confronting manner and explain what you have noticed and why you are concerned. Provide support so they feel safe enough to seek professional help, such as visiting the GP. They may not want help but remain available to them in the future. Get advice from an organisation specialising in eating disorders. 

Where to find out more