We all spend time thinking about what we eat - it’s hard not to, between the desire to be healthy and the messages we get from TV, movies, and social media about how our bodies ‘should’ look. But for some people, thinking about food and eating begins to take over their life. When that happens, it’s called an eating disorder. This guide will break down what eating disorders are, how to recognise them, and how to access help if you think you have one.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is when your relationship to food becomes obsessive.The specifics can vary a lot: eating too much, eating too little, following strict rules about eating, or many other things. The heart of the problem is that you’re compulsively thinking about and keeping track of what you eat in some way. It’s usually linked to negative feelings about your body or your looks, but it isn’t always. Check out our guide Understanding body image to learn some more.
On TV and in movies, you’ll most commonly hear about anorexia (where you eat as little as possible to lose weight) and bulimia (where you go through cycles of bingeing - eating a lot - and restricting), but even combined they only account for a fraction of the eating disorders in the UK. Even if your relationship to food doesn’t look like what you’ve seen on TV, if it’s making you anxious, taking over your thoughts, or making you obsess about your eating habits, it might be an eating disorder.
There sometimes isn’t a clear reason why someone develops an eating disorder, but people who do are often prone to anxiety. Sometimes the eating disorder is triggered by trauma or poor body image. It’s also not unheard of to start out following something that’s seen as a normal, mainstream diet or food restriction - like going low-carb, following a Paleo diet, or micro-fasting - but then become obsessive about following the rules you’ve set for yourself.
Eating disorders can affect anyone. The stereotypical idea is that only girls get eating disorders, but this just isn’t true. In fact, this misunderstanding leads to a lot of men and boys failing to recognise that they might need help. This is a problem, because eating disorders can have huge, sometimes permanent effects on your physical health. If you get help, though, eating disorders absolutely can be beaten.
It’s really important to note that eating disorders often come with intense feelings of shame and secrecy. You might feel like it’s essential to hide what’s going on, like you aren’t thin enough or sick enough to deserve help, like recovery is impossible, or like this is all your own fault - but that just isn’t true. You deserve to feel better, and you absolutely can.
Accessing help for eating disorders
Recovering from an eating disorder without help is incredibly difficult - so difficult that it makes some people think it’s impossible, and that once you have an eating disorder you just have to live with it and manage it forever. But unlike with a lot of mental health problems, you actually can fully recover from an eating disorder as long as you get help. Breaking your silence about your eating disorder is really hard, but such an important first step on the road to recovery.
Treatment and recovery plans vary a lot, but most of them will include therapy or counseling to help you get at the roots of the feelings that drove the eating disorder, plus work with a nutritionist or doctor to help you develop plans for healthier eating and a better relationship with food.
At the doctor
If you think or know you have an eating disorder, it’s really important to tell your doctor. Eating disorders are a mental condition, but obviously they really seriously impact your body as well. Your GP will be able to help you get your physical health back on track, and monitor any lasting effects.
In terms of recovery, there are a lot of different potential treatments for eating disorders, which can be overwhelming. When you research them online, you’ll find people who love and hate all of them. Your doctor will help you sift through all that conflicting advice to find the treatment style that will work best for you, and a reputable place to get it.
At school, college and university
You might feel more comfortable approaching someone at your school, college, or university. Staff at your institution will also be able to refer you to counselors or other specialists. Plus, if there’s any impact on your studies from your recovery process, whether it’s missing classes or just not feeling your best, they’ll be able to work with you to make sure you can focus on getting better, not worrying about school.
There are lots of organisations that offer advice and support for people with eating disorders. Reaching out to these groups is not only a great way to find help, they can reassure you that you’re really not alone in what you’re experiencing, and often offer support groups or ways to connect with other people your age. Check out the links below for some examples.
Be really careful when googling resources for eating disorders, as you will sometimes find online communities that appear to be support groups, but actually exist to encourage each other to keep hiding their disorder and losing weight.
Good stuff from elsewhere
Anorexia and bulimia care (US-based)
Beat Eating Disorders (UK-based)