What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions characterized by disturbances in eating habits, body image, and perceptions of weight and shape.

These disorders can have detrimental effects on physical health, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life. There are several different types of eating disorders, each with its own distinct features and symptoms.

What are the most common types of eating disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa: People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. They often restrict their food intake significantly, leading to severe weight loss. They may also engage in excessive exercise, use laxatives or diuretics, or engage in other behaviours to avoid weight gain.

Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with bulimia nervosa engage in episodes of binge eating, during which they consume a large amount of food in a short period of time. These episodes are followed by compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or fasting to rid the body of the consumed calories.

Binge Eating Disorder: This disorder involves recurring episodes of consuming large quantities of food in a short time, often to the point of discomfort. Unlike bulimia, there are no regular compensatory behaviours. This can lead to weight gain and feelings of guilt and shame.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): ARFID is characterized by an extremely limited range of food intake due to sensory issues, fear of adverse consequences, or lack of interest in eating. This can result in poor nutrition and health problems.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): Formerly known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), OSFED includes a range of disordered eating behaviours that do not meet the criteria for other specific eating disorders. This category captures a variety of behaviours and symptoms.

Treatment for eating disorders typically involves a combination of medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions. Therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), and family-based therapy, is commonly used to address the underlying psychological issues and promote healthy eating habits.


What are the signs of eating disorders?

Eating disorders can manifest in a variety of ways, and the signs and symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of disorder. Here are some common signs to look out for:

Common Signs of Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Severe weight loss: Rapid and significant weight loss, often resulting in being underweight.
  • Obsession with food and weight: Constantly thinking about food, calories, and body shape.
  • Distorted body image: Perceiving oneself as overweight despite being underweight.
  • Restrictive eating: Severely limiting food intake, avoiding certain foods, and having rigid eating patterns.
  • Excessive exercise: Engaging in intense exercise regimens to burn off calories.
  • Social withdrawal: Avoiding social situations that involve food.
  • Cold sensitivity: Feeling cold even in warm temperatures due to low body fat.
  • Fine hair growth: Development of fine hair on the body, known as lanugo, as a result of malnutrition.
  • Irregular or absent menstruation: In females, the menstrual cycle may become irregular or stop altogether.

Common Signs of Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Binge eating: Consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, often in secret.
  • Compensatory behaviors: Engaging in vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, or using laxatives/diuretics after binge eating.
  • Body dissatisfaction: Strong dissatisfaction with body shape and weight.
  • Scarring on knuckles: From repeatedly inducing vomiting.
  • Tooth erosion: Stomach acid from vomiting can erode tooth enamel.
  • Swelling of the cheeks or jaw: Enlarged salivary glands from frequent vomiting.
  • Frequent fluctuations in weight: Binge-purge cycles can lead to weight fluctuations.

Common Signs of Binge Eating Disorder:

  • Frequent episodes of binge eating: Consuming large amounts of food in a short time, often accompanied by feeling out of control.
  • Eating when not physically hungry: Eating when not hungry and continuing to eat even when full.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame: Following binge eating episodes, experiencing intense negative emotions.
  • Isolation: Avoiding social situations involving food due to embarrassment.
  • Overweight or obesity: Individuals with binge eating disorder are often overweight or obese.

Common Signs of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID):

  • Limited food variety: Extremely selective eating, avoiding certain foods due to sensory issues, texture aversion, or fear of adverse consequences.
  • Weight loss or poor growth: Especially in children and adolescents.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Due to a restricted diet.
  • Lack of interest in eating: Limited appetite and interest in food.

Common Signs of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED):

  • Mixture of symptoms: Individuals with OSFED may display a combination of symptoms from various eating disorders.
  • Atypical behaviours: Behaviors that don’t fit the criteria for a specific eating disorder but still pose significant health and psychological risks.


What are the statistics of eating disorders in the UK?

Prevalence: Eating disorders are relatively common in the UK. It’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder

Age and Gender: Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. However, they are more commonly diagnosed in young adults and teenagers. Historically, eating disorders have been associated with females, but males can also be affected.

Specific Disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are among the most prevalent eating disorders in the UK.

Hospital Admissions: In the UK, there has been an increasing trend in hospital admissions for eating disorders. This may be due to greater awareness and recognition of these disorders, leading to more people seeking help.

Mortality Rate: Eating disorders can have serious health consequences, including a risk of death. Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders. It’s estimated that approximately 20% of anorexia nervosa-related deaths are due to suicide.

Access to Treatment: Access to specialized treatment for eating disorders can be a challenge in the UK, with long waiting times for services. However, efforts have been made to improve access and provide appropriate care.

Impact on Mental Health: Eating disorders are closely linked to other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Who to contact about eating disorders in the UK?

Beat: Beat is the UK’s leading eating disorder charity. They provide information, support, and helplines for individuals affected by eating disorders and their loved ones. Beat operates helplines for adults and young people, as well as an online chat service.


  • Adults: 0808 801 0677.
  • Youthline (Under 18s): 0808 801 0711.
  • Studentline: 0808 801 0811.

Helplines open daily: 3pm – 10pm. You can also visit Beat’s website for resources and information:

NHS Services: The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK offers mental health services, including treatment for eating disorders. You can contact your GP (general practitioner) for a referral to appropriate services or call 111. They can guide you to local treatment options.

Mind: Mind is a mental health charity in the UK that offers information and support for a range of mental health issues, including eating disorders. Infoline: 0300 123 3393 Text: 86463. Visit the Mind website:

Local Mental Health Services: Local mental health services in your area may offer support and treatment for eating disorders. You can search for services in your area on the NHS website.

Remember that seeking help is an important step towards recovery. If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these organizations or to a medical professional for assistance.