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Understanding and recognising eating disorders

Learn more about what eating disorders are and what causes them


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Our relationship with food is pretty important: we need it to survive and thrive on a daily basis. Any changes in our eating habits can have a pretty big affect on our lives and that's why eating disorders are something we should be aware of.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a health condition that causes a serious and potentially life-threatening change in your normal eating habits. What many people may not realise is that eating disorders aren't necessarily about food - they're often a sign of underlying worries and emotional stress.

Three common eating disorders are:

Who can develop an eating disorder?

Both women and men are affected by eating disorders, and they can battle with an eating disorder at any stage in their lives.

Common behaviour of people with eating disorders

There a number of signs that a person may be suffering from an eating disorder, especially if their behaviour changes and they start to show some of the following:

  • Starving yourself or restricting what you eat to very small amounts.
  • Eating huge amounts of food until you feel sick (called binging or binge eating)
  • Making yourself vomit (this might be as serious as a few times a day or only happening once every few weeks)
  • Using laxatives (medication that causes diarrhoea) or diuretics (drugs that remove fluid from the body) to keep weight off
  • Exercising more than is healthy

How do I know if I have an eating disorder?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about some of your habits. If you find yourself demonstrating even one of these signs, you could have an eating disorder:

  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed about eating? Are you frightened of putting on weight or do you check your weight all the time?
  • Do you worry all the time about your weight or body shape or about what you’re eating?
  • Do you exercise all the time to work off what you eat?
  • Do you think about food all the time?
  • Are you very critical of yourself? Do you think that you could do things better such as losing more weight or exercising more?
  • Do you eat when you feel depressed or down about yourself?

Other signs

If you answered yes to some of those questions above, it could indicate that you have a problem.

Here are some more signs that you could have an eating disorder:

  • You might diet often and be very concerned with your body weight, shape or size
  • You may think that your body is bigger than it really is. Maybe you even wonder if you have an obsession with food.
  • Maybe you have low self-esteem or very little confidence about your looks or personality. You could feel depressed or lonely and have mood swings.
  • You think that being slim will solve all your problems and are frightened of putting on weight
  • You might have problems speaking about your feelings and worries

Side-effects of an eating disorder

Aside from the toll that an eating disorder can have on your body, people who eating disorders also suffer from a host of side effects as a result of their condition.

Distorted body image

Emotionally, you can have a distorted body image (for example thinking you are fat even though your body is very thin) and be obsessed with your weight. You might get depressed, feel constantly guilty or hate yourself.

Withdrawing from friends and family

If you have an eating disorder, you might withdraw from friends and family and from your normal activities, in an effort to hide the problem.

Mood swings

You might have mood swings and feel down a lot. Eating disorders can cause depression over time.

A loss of energy

You may suffer from a range of side effects such as loss of energy, poor sleep, anxiety and coldness. You might be prone to becoming sick easily.

Changes to your body and organs

There are a number of changes that might happen to different parts of your body which can affect your bones, teeth, and skin.

  • If the body is starved, there can be a drop in blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate
  • Eating disorders can cause serious damage to internal organs
  • Eating disorders may cause anaemia and brittle bones
  • Often, your periods will stop
  • Bulimia can damage the stomach and kidneys from vomiting
  • You may have problems with your teeth and skin

Malnutrition or death

In severe cases, eating disorders can lead to serious malnutrition. In the most serious cases, an eating disorder can be fatal.​

What causes eating disorders?

There's no single reason for eating disorders. They usually develop over time in reaction to a range of factors such as life changes, bullying, teasing about your body, loss, stress or depression. Eating disorders can also be linked with difficult experiences from the past that have not been resolved.

Some other contributing factors include:

  • Culture and fashion can give us the idea that being thin means being happy
  • Dieting and especially extreme diets add to the risk of developing an eating disorder
  • Controlling food might make you feel like you have more control over your life
  • Low self-esteem or a lack of confidence can lead to eating disorders

Getting help for an eating disorder

Always remember that people can and do recover from eating disorders. There is help out there.

If you have an eating disorder or think you may be developing a problem, you can speak to your GP about getting help.

You can also contact Bodywhys which is the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland for more information and support. www.bodywhys.ie

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Published Decem­ber 20th2012
Last updated Octo­ber 11th2018
Tags body image self esteem eating disorder
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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