Eating disorders

An eating disorder is an overall term for a number of conditions that involve eating in a disordered way. The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Key points

  1. An eating disorder is a condition that involves eating in a disordered way, such as eating very little or very large amounts of food, or purging (getting rid of) food you have eaten.
  2. Women are more likely to develop an eating disorder, but anyone of any age may develop one.
  3. The causes of eating disorders are complex and don't involve just one factor.
  4. Getting support is crucial to recovery, so seek help sooner than later. If eating disorders are not treated, they can result in serious medical problems.
  5. However, with treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery, although it may take several years. 

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is one of a number of conditions that involve disordered eating patterns. The person affected tends to be focused on their weight and body shape.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. 

A new category of eating difficulties is avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). This is different from other eating disorders as it involves a disinterest in food for reasons other than a preoccupation with weight and shape. 

What is "disordered" eating?

Disordered eating refers to when you no longer have the usual habits of eating that most people have. This can affect how often you eat, how much you eat, the type of food you eat, how flexible you are around your eating habits and whether you experience pleasure in eating. Depending on the eating disorder, it may involve severe avoidance of eating or purging (getting rid of) food you have eaten.

If you no longer have a sense of what is normal eating, you can read about healthy eating basics.

What causes an eating disorder?

Eating disorders happen because of a combination of factors. These factors can be biological (the way your brain works), genetic (things your inherit), psychological (how you think), social (your relationships with other people) or cultural (the customs and values of the people around you). 

Who is at risk of getting an eating disorder?

Eating disorders can affect any age or gender; however, women are more often affected, particularly younger women.

Anorexia and bulimia can develop at any stage in life, but most often occur during adolescence and early adulthood. Binge eating disorder can occur at any time, but can often start in mid-adulthood. Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is likely to start in childhood. Any of these disorders can have a serious impact on your health.

People at risk of an eating disorder often have experienced the following:

  • having feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness
  • living in a western culture in which being thin is considered the ideal body shape
  • living in an urban area
  • taking part in activities in which body image is a concern (eg, professional or competitive dancing, gymnastics or fashion modelling)
  • having a history of strict dieting and body dissatisfaction
  • having lived in an environment in which leanness or obesity has been a concern
  • experiencing depression or loneliness
  • being a perfectionist or impulsive, or having difficulty managing emotions
  • migrating from a developing country to a western culture
  • experiencing stressful life changes (eg, leaving home to go to university, a relationship breakup or the physical bodily changes of puberty)
  • having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

What should I do if I have an eating disorder?

Self-care and getting support from others is vital in recovering from an eating disorder and feeling happy again. If eating disorders are not treated, they can result in serious medical problems, so seek help sooner than later. 

Start by talking to your GP as they can refer you to an eating disorder specialist who understands what you are going through and knows how to help you. Find out more about eating disorder services in New Zealand.

It also helps to learn about your condition. Read more about anorexia, bulimiabinge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.

What is the treatment for an eating disorder?

If your doctor thinks you most likely have an eating disorder, they will refer you to an eating disorder specialist or service. Most services that treat people with eating disorders bring together a team of different healthcare professionals, including psychiatrists and other doctors, psychologists and dietitians. Some treatment is publicly funded.

Treatment for eating disorders involves healthy eating, together with medical care and psychological treatment. You may need to learn how to manage your feelings in a different way. Some people might also be prescribed medications.

Most people with eating disorders have mainly outpatient treatment, but you may need to go to hospital for treatment if you are at risk of serious medical problems. With treatment, most people with an eating disorder make a good recovery, although it may take several years.

Self-care

Learning how to take good care of yourself and manage your emotions is key to recovering from an eating disorder. The following steps can help you on your road to recovery. 

  • Learn about eating disorders to help you make sense of how you feel.
  • Seek help early. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to get well.
  • Make a decision to recover: see your doctor and get the treatment you need.
  • Don’t be so hard on yourself – seek support and learn strategies to help you deal with difficult emotions and thoughts.
  • Learn about nutrition and develop a healthy relationship with food.
  • Learn ways to improve your body image – self-acceptance and kindness to yourself are important to help you recover.
  • Feeling good about yourself is key – make time for pleasurable activities and spend time with people who can boost your mood.

Learn more

EDANZ Help, support and understanding for people with eating disorders and their families
Disordered eating Centre for Clinical Interventions, Australia
Eating disorders Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Just a thought NZ
Big White Wall

References

  1. Eating disorders Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 2015
  2. Normal eating vs disordered eating Centre for Clinical Interventions, Australia, 2018

Reviewed by

Dr Michelle Meiklejohn is a clinical psychologist with experience working with individuals, families and teams to improve individual functioning, develop resiliency and effectively manage challenges in life and work. She has special interests in eating difficulties, social and emotional skill development and leadership development.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Michelle Meiklejohn, Clinical psychologist Last reviewed: 18 Feb 2019