When eating is used to manage difficult situations, thoughts and feelings it can sometimes develop into an eating disorder. The most common types of eating disorder are bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Anyone can have an eating disorder regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, or background.
Eating disorders are not all about the food itself. Setting strict ‘rules’ around food and eating, being pre-occupied with weight, shape, food and developing rituals around food and eating are way of coping with difficult situations, thoughts and feelings. The way the person treats food may make them feel more able to cope, or feel more in control, but they might not be aware of the purpose this behaviour is serving.
There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Young people who develop eating difficulties and disorders often tell us that eating or not eating can be a way of coping with feelings of sadness, worry and stress. Sometimes life stressors such as exams, bullying, friendship or family relationship difficulties and bereavement or loss may play a part in how someone copes or feels about themselves. There are also some personal factors such as having low self-esteem, experiencing anxiety or depression, setting high standards and being perfectionistic. However, experiencing any one of these things does not necessarily mean that someone will develop an eating disorder or difficulty.
Most young people worry at some time about how they look and can become unhappy with their weight or shape. Some will ‘diet’ and / or exercise as a way of losing weight. This is different from an eating disorder, which is an extreme and unhelpful focus on eating, weight and shape.
An eating disorder can quicky take over a person’s life and make them very unwell. Eating disorders can involve eating too much or far too little. Worries about things like their weight and shape get tied up with feelings of self-worth and can become extreme. People with eating disorders also experience a deep fear of gaining weight, and will usually challenge the idea that they should. People with eating disorders can develop a distorted body image that does not fit with how others see them. Eating disorder behaviour can impact on physical health, education and general daily living, such as hanging out with friends, spending time with family, going out and taking part in activities.
There are many different types of eating disorders, with bulimia and anorexia nervosa being the most common, and all of them are serious. All eating disorders are treatable and a full recovery is possible. Getting help and advice as soon as possible improves the chances of a full recovery.
Here are some signs that there might be a problem and it’s time to get help;
- Constantly thinking or worrying about food, calories, weight gain or your shape. You might notice that it is hard to concentrate on other things such as conversations or school work.
- Reducing your food in order to lose weight and setting yourself strict rules about what you can or cannot eat.
- Trying to do other things to lose weight, such as lots of exercise, vomiting, taking laxatives (medication to help you go to the toilet) or slimming pills.
- You might become tired and more emotional (tearful, irritable).
- If you are female, your periods might stop.
- Other people might start noticing and commenting that they are worried about you
Not everyone who has an eating disorder will experience all the signs and symptoms. Also, if you are experiencing some of these signs and symptoms this does not necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder, but it is important to get help and advice.
It is common for people with eating difficulties to not see that there is a problem. You may not understand why others are concerned or you might disagree that there is a problem altogether. This may make you feel angry and frustrated.
Try to be honest about how you are feeling and what you are struggling with, with those around you. The quicker you can get help for your difficulties, the better the outcome.
Take things one day at a time, each meal at a time. If you have a difficult meal or snack, start the next one afresh.
Find things that will motivate you to maintain healthy eating when things are hard; such as being able to go out with friends, do sports and activities and achieve goals that you have set yourself.
Have a look at these helpful, downloadable workbooks and self-help materials:
- What’s eating you? A Workbook for Teens with Anorexia, Bulimia, and Other Eating Disorders by Tammy Nelson
- Getting Over Overeating for Teens: A Workbook to Transform Your Relationship with Food Using CBT, Mindfulness, and Intuitive Eating by Andrea Watcher
- Body Image Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help Girls Develop a Healthy Body Image in an Image-Obsessed World by Julia Taylor
- Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Build Confidence and Achieve Your Goals by Lisa Scab
- Skills Based Learning for Caring for a loved one with an eating disorder; The New Maudsley Method by Janet Treasure, Grainne Smith and Anna Crane
- Anorexia and other eating disorders; how to help your child eat well and be well by Eva Musby
- Food Refusal and Avoidant Eating in Children (including those with Autism Spectrum Conditions); A practical guide for parents and professionals
- Self-Harm and Eating Disorders in Schools; A guide to whole school strategies and practical support by Pooky Knightsmit
CAMHS Eating Difficulties and Disorders Referral Guidance
What we do, what we don’t do and what you can do if you are worried about your child
Many young people go through phases of dieting and not eating enough. Sometimes this can tip into developing an eating disorder. Here’s a guide to help you know how best to support your young person if they are experiencing eating difficulties. This is not an exhaustive list; young people may experience symptoms which may not be included on this guide: