Eating disorders

Also known as: Anorexia Nervosa; Binge Eating disorder; Bulimia Nervosa; Compulsive Overeating


Eating habits naturally vary from person to person. Some people may develop habits that mean they use food in a way that damages their health – dieting, binging (eating excessive amounts of food) or purging themselves (being sick or using laxatives – medication to help empty their bowels). A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape. In some people however, appearance may not be the main issue, there may be an element of feeling ‘in control’ by restricting food or calorie intake.

Eating disorders can affect people of any gender, age, ethnicity or social/economic background. Although they most commonly arise in females and those in the teenage years, 1 in 10 cases affect males and they frequently persist into old age.

There are several types of eating disorder:

  • anorexia nervosa – occurs when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, by starving themselves or exercising excessively
  • bulimia nervosa – occurs when someone tries to control their weight by binge eating and then deliberately purging themselves to reduce the amount of calories they intake. A person with bulimia may appear to others to be of normal weight
  • binge eating disorder – occurs when a person binges on food uncontrollably but does not purge. In some cases, food may be used as a comfort or to escape difficult emotions
  • compulsive overeating – occurs when a person compulsively overeats even when they are not hungry. Food can be used as a comfort or escape.


Medical text written August 2011 by Professor John F Morgan, Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders, Yorkshire, UK.

What are the causes?

In most cases, there is not a single reason for an eating disorder occurring. There are several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of somebody having an eating disorder, including:

  • being criticised for their eating habits, body shape or weight
  • difficult relationships with family members or friends
  • particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special
  • having a family member that has suffered with an eating disorder
  • being affected by pressure from ‘society’ to be slim (eg from looking at pictures of models and celebrities)
  • certain personality traits (eg being obsessive, anxious, having low self-esteem or being a perfectionist)
  • stressful situations (eg problems at work, school or university).

Recent research suggests that genetic factors play a part in eating disorders.

How is it treated?

If it is not treated, an eating disorder can have a negative impact on someone’s job or schoolwork, and can disrupt relationships with family members and friends. The physical effects of an eating disorder can sometimes be fatal. Initially treatment may focus on correcting physical symptoms of an eating disorder. Extreme weight loss can result in loss of cognitive function so it is important that a person who is under weight is treated appropriately in order to receive further psychological help, Long-term treatment of an eating disorder will involve psychological therapy to help identify and ultimately change the unhealthy attitude to food that has developed. This may involve:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – aims to change patterns of thinking or behaviour that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel
  • interpersonal psychotherapy – this is a talking therapy that focuses on the relationships a person has with family or friends
  • psychodynamic therapy – this is a type of counselling that focuses on how a person’s personality and life experiences influence their current thoughts, feelings, relationships and behaviour
  • dietary counselling – this is a talking therapy to help people maintain a healthy diet.

Inheritance patterns and prenatal diagnosis

Inheritance patterns
Not applicable.

Prenatal diagnosis
Not applicable.

Is there support?

Beat (Beating Eating Disorders)

Youthline (under 25s): 0808 801 0711 (Monday to Sunday, 4pm- 10pm)
Youthline email: (aim to respond within 24 hours)
Adult helpline: 0808 801 0677 (Monday to Sunday, 4pm-10pm)
Adult email: (aim to respond within 24 hours)

The Association is a Registered Charity in England and Wales No. 801343. It provides information and support and a network of support groups to help adults and young people in the UK beat their eating disorders. Beat has two helplines: a Youthline for young people up to the age of 25, and an Adult Helpline. The Association offers a Transitions Project for young people in London. 

Group details last updated May 2017.

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