Eating disorders: causes, support and treatment

Food plays a crucial role in all our lives. As such, it’s understandable that some of us, at some point in our lives, will encounter a problem, sometimes serious, with our eating

An eating problem is a relationship with food that is problematic and difficult. This can take a variety of forms, from thinking constantly about food, eating too little, eating too much, binge eating and more.

The line between an eating problem and an eating disorder is thin. An eating disorder is a serious eating problem that has an official medical diagnosis. Meanwhile, an eating problem – overeating, comfort eating, unhealthy weight gain – can also be serious and lack of medical diagnosis doesn’t mean that it should be taken less seriously.

There are many myths and taboos around eating disorders – and unfortunately stigma around them is widespread, discouraging some people from seeking help. Stereotypes around eating disorders can also make it difficult for some groups, for example men, to seek help with their condition. Men may feel that if they try to seek help, they will not be taken seriously. As such, it's important to recognise that an eating disorder can impact anyone – of any gender, age, ethnicity or background.

Types of eating disorders

When thinking about eating disorders, people typically think of anorexia or bulimia. However, there are other types of eating disorders too. Here is a list, which, while not exhaustive, covers the most common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia: an eating disorder in which a person is very low weight due to severely limiting what they eat and drink. People with anorexia often have a distorted body image (body dysmorphia).
  • Bulimia: this is where a person eats food and then purges the food from their system by making themselves sick. A feeling of guilt and shame is often the trigger for purging.
  • Binge eating disorder: this is where a person eats large quantities of food at one time to the point of feeling uncomfortably full or sick. People suffering from a binge eating disorder feel that they cannot stop eating, which is sometimes labelled as 'compulsive eating'. A person with a binge eating disorder often relies on food to make themselves feel better and cope with emotional problems.
  • OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder): this is a disorder that does not fit the criteria for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or any other named eating disorder. In fact, OSFED is the most common eating disorder.
  • ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder): this is where a person avoids or heavily restricts eating certain kinds of foods. Reasons for a person avoiding specific goods might include smell, texture or taste. This goes beyond not liking a certain kind of food, as a person suffering from ARFID will experience serious fear of the food they avoid and this food causes them to experience anxiety, stress and potentially sickness.
  • Pica: an eating disorder in which a person will eat objects that have no nutritional value, such as paper or soap.

It's important to note that each person’s experience of an eating disorder is different.


The causes of eating disorders are wide and varied – and are dependent on the type of eating disorder a person has. Causes of eating disorders can include:

  • Trauma: life experiences which are difficult and traumatic can trigger an eating disorder.
  • Social pressure: pressure from people around us, the media and more, can make us feel inadequate and insecure about our bodies, giving us a distorted body image, which can lead to the development of an eating disorder.
  • Personality traits: certain traits, such as perfectionism, compulsive behaviour and a desire for control, can make someone more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.
  • Stress: whether in our professional or personal life, stress can lead to the development of an eating disorder as a person may seek to escape stress through their diet/food consumption.
  • Family history: a family history of eating disorders can increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder.
  • Mental health conditions: mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and more, can sometimes cause eating disorders. But an eating disorder can also cause mental health conditions.
  • Biological factors: it has been suggested that some people are more biologically predisposed towards an eating disorder due to their genetics.

Journey to recovery

The first, and most crucial, step in recovery is the acknowledgement of a problem. A person cannot begin their journey of recovery before they acknowledge the problem and that their relationship with – and behaviour around – food need to be dealt with.

The next step is to share. Sharing does not mean that a person suffering from an eating disorder must tell everyone about their condition, but rather, that they should reach out to those close to them, who will support them in their recovery. Such people might include family, friends or even colleagues.

Then it's important to seek help. Seeking help at the appropriate places with the appropriate people is crucial to receive the correct treatment and support. The best place to get support for an eating disorder starts with your GP. A GP will be able to provide direct support and also signpost to specialist organisations and services supporting those with eating disorders.


Treatment will depend on the types of disorder. But there are some general forms of treatment given for eating disorders:

  • Talking to a doctor: as mentioned above, a doctor will be able to listen to a person's problem and direct them to the appropriate specialist organisations and teams. A GP is your first point of contact for support and treatment.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy: used more widely in mental health and counselling circles, there is also cognitive behavioural therapy tailored specifically for treating eating disorders. A person receiving this treatment will attend regular sessions over a period of time.
  • Talking therapies
  • Courses: online self-help courses are often prescribed alongside other methods of treatment.
  • Hospital or clinic admission: if someone is suffering from a very severe eating disorder, it may be necessary for them to be admitted to a hospital or clinic for medical treatment.

Beat is the UK's eating disorder charity and a great source of information and support.

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