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Eating disorders

About eating disorders

What's an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are abnormal patterns of eating and exercising that severely interfere with your everyday life.

For example, you might eat extremely small amounts of food or eat in an uncontrolled way.

You might also be worried about food, body weight and appearance.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is another eating disorder that occurs mainly in children.

All eating disorders can occur in both males and females of any age.

With treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery.

Types of eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

Symptoms of eating disorders

These are some of the early symptoms of eating disorders:

  • you are afraid of putting on weight, or you weigh yourself all the time
  • you think about food all the time, or you feel anxious at meal times
  • you’ve started restricting how much food you eat
  • you overeat uncontrollably
  • you feel out of control around food
  • you hoard food to binge on later
  • you make yourself vomit after eating
  • you take laxatives to make you lose weight
  • you worry too much about how you look
  • you check yourself in the mirror constantly
  • you don’t like eating around other people
  • you have started to lie about what you eat or how much you eat
  • you exercise too much
  • you feel cold all the time, weak or lightheaded
  • for girls and women, your periods have stopped, or have not begun by age 16.

You don’t have to have all these symptoms to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

As well as these symptoms, you may feel bad about yourself or that you are not good enough, feel sad, anxious or irritable, or not feel like spending time or getting involved in activities with other people.

Even if you are not unusually skinny or do not feel skinny, you may have an eating disorder if you are experiencing the above symptoms.

What causes eating disorders?

There isn't just one simple reason why eating disorders occur.

Researchers think that eating disorders happen because of a combination of factors. These factors can be biological (the way your brain works), genetic (familial), psychological (how you think), social (your relationships with other people) or cultural (the customs and values of the people around you).

Generally, girls/women are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder than boys/men.

Some other things that may make you more at risk of developing an eating disorder are:‚Äč

  • having feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness
  • living in a western culture in which being thin is considered the ideal body shape
  • living in an urban area
  • participating in activities in which body image is a concern (e.g. professional or competitive dancing, gymnastics or fashion modelling)
  • having a history of strict dieting and body dissatisfaction
  • having lived in an environment in which leanness or obesity has been a concern
  • experiencing depression or loneliness
  • being a perfectionist, or impulsive, or having difficulty managing emotions
  • migrating from a developing country to a western culture
  • experiencing stressful life changes (e.g. leaving home to go to university, a relationship breakup or the physical bodily changes of puberty)
  • having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Who gets eating disorders?

All eating disorders can occur in both males and females of any age.

People used to think that only young women and teenage girls could have eating disorders. We now know that eating disorders occur in both males and females, but that girls and women are twice as likely as boys and men to have an eating disorder.

Getting help for eating disorders

If you are worried that you might have an eating disorder, the first step is to speak to your usual doctor – for example, your GP (family doctor).

If your usual doctor thinks that you most likely do have an eating disorder, he or she will then refer you to an appropriate eating disorder specialist or service.

If you think you might have an eating disorder, it is very important to see a health professional as soon as possible.

More about the first steps to get help

How are eating disorders treated?

Treatment for eating disorders involves healthy eating together with medical care and psychological treatment. Some people might also be prescribed medications.

Your healthcare team will work with you to decide which combination of treatments is right for you.

More about treatment of eating disorders

Recovery from eating disorders

With treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery, so it is important to have a positive attitude to your own recovery journey.

At least 50% of people with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder fully recover with treatment. It can take some time to get better – perhaps up to 5 years if you have anorexia nervosa.

For some people, the eating disorder might return for a time (e.g. during a time of stress). Because it takes time to recover, it is important to establish an ongoing relationship with a health professional whom you trust and have confidence in.

More information and support

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Remember

  • Eating disorders can occur in both males and females of any age.
  • If you think you might have an eating disorder, seek help as soon as possible. If eating disorders are not treated, they can result in serious medical problems.
  • With treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery, although it may take several years.
Last reviewed March 2017 © RANZCP | C1037V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.