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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin O’Nions

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations. It can start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.

Eating disorders are unfortunately becoming increasingly common. Over the last 30-40 years, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased to become a widespread problem across the UK and worldwide, and are responsible for more loss of life than any other mental health condition.

Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, and are most common in individuals between the ages of 16 and 40 years old. Around 25% of those affected by an eating disorder are male.

Types of eating disorders

  • Anorexia nervosa: trying to control your weight by under-eating, excessively exercising, or doing both.

  • Bulimia: losing control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action to not put on weight.

  • Binge eating disorder (BED): eating large portions of food until you feel uncomfortably full.

  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): having symptoms that are similar to one or more eating disorders, but may not meet all the criteria for these conditions.

  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): avoiding certain foods, limiting how much you eat or doing both. Beliefs about weight or body shape are not reasons why people develop ARFID.

Spotting the symptoms/signs in yourself or others

Different types of eating disorders have different symptoms, but each condition involves an extreme focus on issues related to food and eating.

Symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape

  • Avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved

  • Eating very little food

  • Making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat

  • Excessively exercising

  • Having very strict habits or routines around food

  • Refusing to eat certain foods

  • Excuses to avoid mealtime

  • Changes in your mood such as being withdrawn, anxious or depressed

  • Patterns of binge eating and purging

You may also notice physical signs, including:

  • Feeling cold, tired or dizzy

  • Pains, tingling or numbness in your arms and legs (poor circulation)

  • Feeling your heart racing, fainting or feeling faint

  • Problems with your digestion, such as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea

  • Your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height

  • Thinning hair and hair loss

  • Not getting your period or other delayed signs of puberty

Common misconceptions

You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder - You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. The common assumption is that someone suffering from an ED must be severely underweight but in fact, the majority in remain at a ‘healthy’ weight (). The assumption that you need to be underweight to be diagnosed with an ED stops people from reaching out for help when they need it due to fears of not being ‘thin enough’.

Anorexia Nervosa is the primary eating disorder - Only around 8% of eating disorder diagnoses are for anorexia nervosa. The most common is OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder), followed by binge eating at 22% and bulimia at 19%.

Eating disorders only affect young women - It’s correct that eating disorders are more prevalent among women, but 25% of those with eating disorders are male. Misconceptions surrounding the ‘type’ of people who are affected can stop those from seeking help.

Where to seek help

The UK’s leading eating disorders charity is Beat. They offer educational resources, chatrooms, helplines, and have a directory of local support so you can access help in your area.

The NHS recommends visiting your GP if you feel you are struggling with an eating disorder. Your GP will ask about your eating habits and how you're feeling, plus check your overall health and weight. They may refer you to an eating disorder specialist or a team of specialists.

Here at CityDietitians, Priya Tew works in private practice helping people with disorders eating patterns and eating disorders to find their path to recovery. Priya has a compassionate approach with common sense nutrition. To book in, please use our online booking system or email to ask any questions.



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