Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses affecting people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. People with eating disorders use disordered eating behaviour as a way to cope with difficult situations or feelings. This behaviour can include limiting the amount of food eaten, eating very large quantities of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. making themselves sick, misusing laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise), or a combination of these behaviours.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders are not all about food itself, but about feelings. The way the person treats food may make them feel more able to cope, or may make them feel in control, though they might not be aware of the purpose this behaviour is serving. An eating disorder is never the fault of the person experiencing it, and anyone who has an eating disorder deserves fast, compassionate support to help them get better.
So that healthcare professionals can choose the right kind of treatment for someone, there are a number of different eating disorders that someone can be diagnosed with. It’s possible for someone to move between diagnoses if their symptoms change – there is often a lot of overlap between different eating disorders.
It’s common for people to be diagnosed with “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). This is not a less serious type of eating disorder – it just means that the person’s eating disorder doesn’t exactly match the list of symptoms a specialist will check to diagnose them with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
Eating disorders can be fatal, and they cause serious harm both physically and emotionally. But even though they are serious illnesses, eating disorders are treatable. We know at Beat from our daily contact with people affected that it is very possible to make a full recovery. Like any other illness, the sooner someone with an eating disorder is treated, the more likely recovery is. The most important thing is getting yourself or the person you’re supporting into treatment as quickly as possible. We’ve put together a leaflet, available from our downloadable resources, to help you out with getting a referral to a specialist when you visit the GP.
You can read about other eating and feeding problems here.
There are a lot of stereotypes about who can have an eating disorder. These can be very harmful. It’s important to remember that the possibility that someone could develop an eating disorder can never be ruled out. While young women are most likely to develop an eating disorder, particularly those aged 12 to 20, anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of their age, gender, or ethnic or cultural background. It is thought that around a quarter of sufferers are male.
In fact, the number of sufferers among men and boys, older people, and people from ethnic or cultural minority backgrounds could be higher than we currently think. People from these demographics may be more reluctant to come forward and ask for help with an illness that is already very difficult to talk about. It can also be harder for friends, family, and other acquaintances, as well as healthcare professionals, to spot an eating disorder if they have misconceptions about who is likely to have one.
Eating disorders are complex – there is no single reason why someone develops an eating disorder. A whole range of different factors, including someone’s genetics, biology, psychology and surroundings, can combine to make it more likely any one person develops the condition.
We don’t yet know everything about what causes an eating disorder, or what treatments will work for everyone, but we do know there are effective treatments available. There is world-class research going on, much of it in the UK and involving work across the globe. The latest research is showing us that eating disorders have much more to do with biology than was previously thought.
Not everyone will experience the same symptoms, respond the same way to treatment, or take the same amount of time to recover. Some people can be affected by more than one type of eating disorder or find their symptoms changing type as they recover. Someone with an eating disorder may also experience other mental or physical health issues at the same time as their eating disorder. Sometimes these can play a role in the eating disorder developing, or they may develop alongside or because of the eating disorder. Treatment for eating disorders should consider other health issues the person may have.
The first step towards getting help for an eating disorder is usually to visit the GP. We have a leaflet that can help you with this appointment. If you're not registered with a GP, you can learn more about how to do this in:
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which gives evidence-based guidelines about how to treat different illnesses, recommends that if the GP thinks someone may have an eating disorder, they should immediately refer them to an eating disorder specialist for further assessment or treatment.
Diagnosis is made by “taking a history”, which means talking to the person about their feelings and behaviour. It may also involve some physical tests, such as checking their height and weight, and blood tests. Diagnosis is usually essential to be able to access treatment. Each type of eating disorder has a list of criteria that doctors and healthcare professionals use to diagnose an eating disorder. You can read more about what might happen at a doctor’s appointment here, and what treatment involves here.
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