What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations. Unhealthy eating behaviours may include eating too much or too little or worrying about your weight or body shape.

Anyone can get an eating disorder, but teenagers between 13 and 17 are mostly affected. With treatment, most people can recover from an eating disorder.

Types of eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa -Trying to control your weight by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or doing both
Bulimia - Losing control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action to not put on weight
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) Eating large portions of food until you feel uncomfortably full
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) This is when a person's symptoms do not exactly fit the expected symptoms for any specific eating disorders. OSFED is the most common eating disorder.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) This is when someone avoids certain foods, limits how much they eat or does both.

What causes an eating disorder?

We do not know exactly what causes eating disorders. You may be more likely to get an eating disorder if:

  • you or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug misuse
  • you've been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight
  • you're really worried about being slim, particularly if you also feel pressure from society or your job, for example, ballet dancers, models or athletes
  • you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality or are a perfectionist
  • you've been sexually abused

If you or people around you are worried that you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you could have an eating disorder.

Symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape
  • avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved
  • eating very little food
  • making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat
  • exercising too much
  • having very strict habits or routines around food
  • changes in your mood such as being withdrawn, anxious or depressed

You may also notice physical signs, including:

  • feeling cold, tired or dizzy
  • pains, tingling or numbness in your arms and legs (poor circulation)
  • feeling your heart racing, fainting or feeling faint
  • problems with your digestion, such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea
  • your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height
  • not getting your period or other delayed signs of puberty

You can read more about the symptoms of:

It can be very difficult to identify that a loved one or friend has developed an eating disorder.

Warning signs to look out for include:

  • dramatic weight loss
  • lying about how much they've eaten, when they've eaten, or their weight
  • eating a lot of food very fast
  • going to the bathroom a lot after eating
  • exercising a lot
  • avoiding eating with others
  • cutting food into small pieces or eating very slowly
  • wearing loose or baggy clothes to hide their weight loss

If you think you may have an eating disorder, see a GP (doctor) as soon as you can. A GP will ask about your eating habits and how you're feeling, plus check your overall health and weight. They may refer you to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists.

It can be very hard to admit you have a problem and ask for help. It may make things easier if you bring a friend or loved one with you to your appointment.

It can be difficult to know what to do if you're worried that someone has an eating disorder. They may not realise they have an eating disorder. They may also deny it, or be secretive and defensive about their eating or weight.

Let them know you're worried about them and encourage them to see a doctor (GP). You could offer to go along with them.

Read more about talking to your child about eating disorders and supporting someone with an eating disorder.

The eating disorder charity Beat also has information on:

Treatment for eating disorders

You can recover from an eating disorder, but it may take time and recovery will be different for everyone. If you're referred to an eating disorder specialist or team of specialists, they'll be responsible for your care. They should talk to you about the support you might need, such as for other conditions you have, and include this in your treatment plan.

Your treatment will depend on the type of eating disorder you have, but usually includes a talking therapy. You may also need regular health checks if your eating disorder is having an impact on your physical health. Your treatment may also involve working through a guided self-help programme if you have bulimia or binge eating disorder. Most people will be offered individual therapy, but some may be offered group therapy.


For other websites that provide support and information on eating disorders, visit our other helpful organisations page.

Helpful books
Title Authors
Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder

James Lock and Daniel Le Grange

Skills-based learning for caring for a loved one with an eating disorder: The New Maudsley Method 

Janet Treasure and Grainne Smith

Eating Disorders: A Parent's Guide (2nd Edition)

Rachel Bryant-Waugh

Anorexia and other eating disorders: How to help your child eat well & be well 

Eva Musby
Decoding Anorexia  Carrie Arnold
Helpful videos

ARFID resources

Support groups
  • ARFID awareness UK run a parent and carer support group on facebook
  • BEAT Eating Disorders Charity run online support groups through their website for young people and parents and carers. Online support groups - Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)
  • Family Voice Surrey Restrictive Food Intake Group. This is a monthly online support group for those whose children suffer with restrictive food intake for whatever reason, ARFID, ASD, allergies, poor swallow etc. Held on Zoom. Home - Family Voice Surrey

Support available through Mindworks Surrey for eating disorders

There are a range of third-party organisations that offer support and advice for eating disorders, these can be found on our other helpful organisations page.