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Eating disorders explained

According to the NHS, 6.4% of people in England alone have experienced symptoms of an eating disorder. If we apply this percentage across the UK that’s a staggering 4.3 million people! Crikey! [1]

Eating disorders don’t just affect women either, anyone, no matter of gender, age, ethnicity, or background, can be impacted.

The way eating disorders present themselves can vary quite a bit and depend on each individual. For instance, there are lots of different types of eating disorders including:

  • Binge eating disorder (BED) – overeating in short periods of time

  • Anorexia – restricting food intake and/or excessive exercise

  • Bulimia – binge eating followed by purging

  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) - avoiding certain foods or types of food

  • Pica - eating non-food objects such as chalk, paint, stones, and clothing

  • Rumination disorder – chewing food and then spitting it out

  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – where the disorder doesn’t fit into another category

“I don’t fit the classic profile of someone with anorexia or bulimia. I had no idea that binge eating disorder existed until a friend recommended I try Overeaters Anonymous. Initially I thought he was joking!” Imran, Beingwell member

Contrary to popular belief, OSFED and binge eating disorder (BED) are actually the most common forms of eating disorders in the UK.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, not character flaws or choices. They aren’t only about the way we treat food but also about underlying feelings, thoughts, and anxieties. An eating disorder may well be a way of coping with life, or a way to feel in control. They’re absolutely not anyone’s fault.

“I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t want to admit I had an eating disorder. Food was my comfort, a way to cope with problems, a way to switch off from the world. It took many years and a lot of pain before I asked for help. It’s now been over 7 years since I last binged and purged.” Amy, Beingwell member

How do I know if I have an eating disorder?

Whilst these questions aren’t a way of diagnosing an eating disorder, they can be useful in identifying whether support might be needed.

Do I…

  • use food to manage my feelings, and soothe or calm me?

  • feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about my weight or the way I eat?

  • eat large quantities of food in one go, sometimes until I’m utterly stuffed?

  • reach for food or completely avoid food when my emotions are intense?

  • fast or severely restrict my food intake to control my weight?

  • think about food or my weight a lot?

  • eat differently in private than I do around other people?

  • use laxatives, vomiting, excessive exercise, or diet pills?

  • need to chew or have something in my mouth all the time (like chewing gum or pen lids)?

  • eat when I’m not physically hungry?

  • have a strong drive to control my body size or shape?

  • get annoyed when family or friends question my eating?

  • have “rules”, strict habits or routines around food?

  • experience fear or anxiety around food, eating, my weight, or body size/shape?

  • find it difficult to stop eating once I’ve started?

  • think I’m fat, while other people say I’m normal or underweight?

  • worry that I’ve lost control over how much I eat?

If we’re having problems with our eating or feel that difficult feelings or situations are changing our eating habits, then we may have an eating disorder or be developing one.

“I would obsess about eating ‘clean’ and had lots of rules around food. It got to the point where I stopped seeing friends or eating out because I was terrified of being out of control. I’m really grateful that, for today, I have recovery.” Karen, Beingwell member

What should I do if I think I have an eating disorder?

Make an appointment with the GP and ask for specialist support. If that feels too scary or uncomfortable then speak to a friend or relative. These charities also offer support:

A worldwide charity with over 200 weekly support groups across the UK (currently online) for compulsive overeating, under-eating, food addiction, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, over-exercising, or body image issues.

A national UK charity that gives information, help and support for people affected by eating disorders. They have online support groups, peer support, message boards, and helplines. They also have a search facility (Helpfinder) for support groups and eating disorder services.

A UK charity offering personal, on-going, emotional support and practical guidance for recovery for people struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge eating, in addition to related self-harm.

Getting help for someone else

It can be difficult to know what to do if we're concerned that someone we know has an eating disorder. People with an eating disorder are often secretive and defensive about their eating and weight and may deny being unwell.

Let the person know we're worried about them and encourage them to see a GP.

Read more about supporting someone with an eating disorder here and here.


1. Adult psychiatric morbidity in England (2009). NHS.




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