What is an eating disorder?

Learn more about what eating disorders are and what causes them
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Our relationship with food is important, and the way we feel about food can have an impact on what we eat and how much we eat. When someone has an unhealthy attitude towards food, this could be a sign of an eating disorder. 

It can be difficult to know what to do if you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, but it’s important to remember that there is help available and you can recover from an eating disorder.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition that causes a serious and potentially life-threatening change in your normal eating habits. Eating disorders can involve eating too much, eating too little, or obsessing over your body weight, shape and how you look.

Although eating disorders centre around food and eating, they are often not about food itself – they’re often a sign of underlying mental health issues and emotional stress.

Three common eating disorders are:

Who can develop an eating disorder?

Anyone of any gender can develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders often develop during teenage years, but it can happen at any age.

Signs that someone may have an eating disorder

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

  • Spending a lot of time worrying about your body weight, shape or size
  • 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) after eating
  • Exercising too much
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Having strict routines and habits around food
  • Withdrawing from friends and family and from normal activities (especially ones that revolve around food), in an effort to hide the problem

Other physical signs:

You may experience a number of issues that affect your energy levels and how you feel:

  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling cold
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Poor sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Periods may stop entirely
  • You may experience digestive issues

How do I know if I have an eating disorder?

If you are worried that you may have an eating disorder, it’s important to make an appointment to speak with your GP.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about some of your habits. If you find yourself demonstrating 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?

Getting help for an eating disorder

Always remember that people can and do recover from eating disorders. There is help out there, and the recovery journey can be different for everyone.

Speaking to your GP

If you have an eating disorder or think you may be developing a problem, you can speak to your GP about getting help. This can be a good place to start- your GP may ask you some questions about your eating habits and attitude towards food, and they can refer you to a service that can help.

Treatment for eating disorders

The type of treatment you receive can depend on the type of eating disorder you have. Often, treatment will involve a combination of nutritional therapy to promote physical recovery and talking therapy to address the underlying cause of the eating disorder.

The aim of talking therapy is to help you understand the root causes of your eating disorder so that you can improve your relationship with food and with yourself. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a popular form of talk therapy that can be used to support you with your recovery. It looks at the ways that our thoughts affect our behaviours and feelings.

If you are under 18, you might take part in family-based treatment (FBT), involving you and your family talking to a therapist. FBT will look at how you have been affected by your eating disorder, and what your family can do to support you in getting better.

In most cases, it will be possible to stay at home while receiving treatment. However, if you are experiencing serious physical symptoms as a result of an eating disorder, you may need in-patient treatment in a medical hospital. In-patient treatment can offer you the added physical and psychiatric support that you need in these circumstances.

Information and support

For information and support around eating disorders and treatment in Ireland, visit Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland.

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