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Eating disorders

Eating disorders are common, yet often go unnoticed, undiagnosed, or untreated. There are many myths about these disorders, the most popular being that they only affect young women and can be easily dealt with.

An abnormal attitude towards food

Anorexia, binge eating and bulimia nervosa are types of eating disorders. They are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food, difficulty controlling how much is eaten, and making unhealthy choices about food that ultimately damage the body.

It is true that eating disorders are most common in teenage girls, but 10% of cases are men, and it is not uncommon for the problem to develop in middle age.

Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex, and may reflect underlying mental or psychological issues.

Eating disorders have a number of causes

Problems with food can begin when it’s used to cope with feelings of boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness or guilt. Controlling what is eaten can become a way of controlling difficult emotions or coping with painful situations. There is unlikely to be a single cause. There are probably a range of factors that leave people feeling unable to cope. These can include:

  • difficult family relationships,
  • the death of someone special,
  • stress,
  • problems at work, school or university, and
  • sexual or emotional abuse.

Low self-esteem can be a cause, as many people do not see themselves as being good enough, and blame this on being too fat.

Research shows that these disorders can also be due to a person’s genetic make-up. Abnormal levels of some brain and body chemicals have been linked to eating disorders. The attitudes of family and close friends can have an impact too. For example, a parent’s attitude to eating can affect the child’s food choices.

Recovery can be a long process

Recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time and it is important that the person wants to get better. The support of family and friends is very valuable. Specialist care can help to deal with underlying psychological causes and physical effects. There are also support and self-help groups, and personal and telephone counselling services that can help.