Eating disorders

Eating disorders

This article gives:

  • gives information about the eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and about compulsive overeating.
  • gives information on how you can get help if you have an eating disorder and what to expect while you are recovering.

Eating disorders are not just about food or weight. They are about feelings.

Food and eating play a very important part in all our lives. It is not unusual for young people to experiment with food.

Perhaps you have experimented with food? Eating more, or less, than usual, in order to improve your health or change your shape? Maybe you've also tried increasing the amount of exercise you do to improve your fitness? All these changes - within reason -are fine.

However, if taken to extremes changing your eating patterns can be damaging. Perhaps you've eaten too much or refused to eat because you are feeling unhappy? You can misuse and abuse food in many different ways.

Eating in these dangerous ways over a period of time can become emotionally and physically damaging to you.

Eating disorders can be a way of coping with painful feelings that are difficult to talk openly about.

An eating disorder is an unconscious attempt to avoid these feelings, or to keep them under control.

There are many reasons why people may develop eating disorders. Often there is no one cause, but a whole series of events which makes you feel unable to cope with life.

People from all types of background and ethnic groups can suffer from eating disorders. Eating disorders are a way of coping with feelings that are making you unhappy or depressed. It may be difficult to face up to, and talk about, feelings like anger, sadness, guilt, loss or fear. An eating disorder is a sign that you need help and support. 



Anorexia Nervosa 


If you suffer from anorexia nervosa you may restrict your food intake, yet think about food and calories all the time. Perhaps you are afraid that if you eat normally you will become fat. This fear may dominate much of your thinking. Perhaps you over-exercise? Getting up early to exercise, when no-one can see you. Pushing yourself ever harder to lose weight and control your body?

During the process of growing up, your body undergoes many changes both physically and emotionally. Slowing down or stopping these changes may be viewed as a way of trying to regain control over the changes you are experiencing. It may be seen as a way of avoiding all the demands of growing up and the issues that it brings. It could be that you are deeply afraid of not being loved and of other people not approving of you.

At the same time, perhaps you may have unconsciously built up a barrier between yourself and those who care about you. You may feel that everyone around you seems angry, concerned and upset.

However much you need to feel in control, in reality, you have lost control because your concern about food, calories and weight is actually controlling your life.

Do you recognise these symptoms?...




Periods stopping

Severe weight loss

Difficulty sleeping


Stomach pains

Bad breath

Feeling cold most of the time

Growth of downy hair on parts of the body


Believing you're fat when you are in the 'normal' range weight


Setting high standards of behaviour and achievement for yourself

Lack of interest in normal activities

Wanting to be left alone and losing friends

Increased interest in food, calories and cooking

Excessive exercising

Having ritual behaviours

Lying about eating meals

Cooking for family and friends

Wearing little clothing in cold weather


Bulimia Nervosa

Many young people with bulimia nervosa seem to be popular and able to cope well with their lives.

But inside you may feel like a fraud. You may feel vulnerable, and perceive yourself as being inadequate, unattractive or worthless. You may act impulsively, sometimes regretting your actions.

At times you may feel OK, but at other times you may feel very low, depressed and even suicidal.

When you have bulimia nervosa, you feel panicky, and go to the food cupboard or fridge and eat as much food as you can as quickly as possible. You then feel physically and emotionally sick and guilty about your behaviour. To try and compensate, you make yourself sick.

You then become involved in the cycle of eating to excess, starve for a few days or taking laxatives to get rid of the food you have eaten. At this point you feel ashamed or disgusted by what you have done to yourself. You try to keep your behaviour a secret, not wanting to admit to others what is happening to you.

Do you recognise these symptoms?...




Sore throat due to infection

Mouth infections (including ulcers and tooth decay)

Bad breath

Irregular periods

Dry or poor skin

Feeling tired

Difficulty sleeping

Stomach disorders



Swollen glands

Hair loss

Kidney and bowel problems

Feeling emotional


Feeling out of control

Mood swings

Obsession with dieting

Eating large amounts of food

Being sick after meals

Taking laxatives

Being secretive and lying

Both young men and young women can contract an eating disorder. Like anorexia, bulimia (if left untreated) can not only leave you unable to produce children, but can also be fatal.


 Compulsive over-eating and binge eating



Compulsive overeaters binge eat but unlike someone with bulimia nervosa they do not get rid of the food.

If you are over-eating you can become very overweight. You may feel that you don't have confidence in your ability to control your eating or to cope with life. You may feel bad or inadequate because you cannot control your eating. This feeling of being 'helpless' and out of control may prompt you to over-eat. It can be a vicious circle.

There are many different reasons why you might overeat. Perhaps all you need is clear advice on how to eat a healthy diet? Perhaps you are bored or unhappy? Perhaps what you really need is someone to talk to?

Some over-eaters will use food for the same emotional reasons as those experiencing other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. 


Finding someone to talk to...


Talking to someone may be the first step to recovery, and you may find it lifts some weight from your mind. If you feel you can, try discussing the matter with your parents, or with the nurse at school. If there is no-one you feel comfortable with, then have a look at the 'seeking help...' section below.

Eating disorders can be very serious and in some cases can result in death.

It is very difficult if you have an eating disorder to get better on your own.

If you have an eating disorder, you might want to get help but are afraid of how those around you will react. You may feel afraid that others will become angry with you. Perhaps you fear you will lose the control you have over your life. All this may make you reluctant to tell your parents.

It is important that you know that there are services throughout the country, which are specifically developed to meet the needs of young people.

The professionals who work in these services are experienced in working with young people and their families to identify the issues and support you through the process of recovery.

Recovery is easier if you have professional help and support from those who care for you.



Seeking help...


There are many ways for you to obtain help. The following gives an idea of the kind of help that may be offered:


  • Talking to an eating disorders group: This article has been prepared by the "Eating Disorders Association". They offer help, support and information on eating disorders. For more information on how to contact the Eating Disorders Association, see the end of this article.
  • Counselling: There are youth counselling agencies around the country that may be able to help young people with eating disorders. They may charge for their counselling, but most services aimed at young people are free. Many private counsellors (who charge fees) offer reduced rates for those on a low income. For a list of counsellors who offer to help people with eating disorders contact Eating Disorders Association (web address at end of the article).


  • Going to see a doctor: It is important to have a medical assessment. The doctor may:
    • offer treatment through regular appointments,
    • refer you to services within the practice, for example, counsellor, dietician, community psychiatric nurse,
    • refer you to specialist and/or child and adolescent services,
    • they will be able to discuss which options are available to you.

As a young person, you have some rights to confidentiality, but doctors will have policy guidelines they have to follow. More information on this issue can be found on the Eating Disorders Association's website.





Recovery from an eating disorder can take a long time. The sooner you seek help, the quicker and easier recovery is likely to be.

To change your ways of thinking and feeling is never easy, and it takes time to find new ways of coping. Many people with eating disorders find they make slow progress, but recovery is possible.

Most people with eating disorders can only resolve their problems with the help and support of family and friends who are important in your lives. The whole family may need to make adjustments. During the process of recovery, you will have negative and angry feelings, perhaps becoming more assertive than usual. This is an important but painful phase that needs to be passed through during the process of finding a new identity.

Gradually, the eating will begin to return to normal and you will join in more with others of your age. Recovering from an eating disorder can be a painful process for everyone involved. However, over time it is possible for you to gain new confidence and begin to realise there are other ways of coping.

Never give up hope! Recovery is possible!

If you would like more information about eating disorders, you can visit the "Eating Disorders Association by clicking on their website address below. Or you call the association's helpline using the numbers shown below - they will be happy to discuss your situation in absolute confidence.


Youthline (under 18): 08456347650 (or txt 07786201820)

Helpline (over 18): 01603 621414 or 08456341414

(open Mon-Fri 4.30pm 08.30pm & Sat 1pm-4.30pm)