What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health challenge involving complex food relationships and unrealistic self-perception. A survey suggests that about 1.5 million people in the UK cope with an eating disorder. The numbers include people of all ages, gender, and social settings.

Eating disorders involve a constant preoccupation with food and physical appearance that can lead to an unhealthy obsession with life-threatening consequences.

There are different types of eating disorders that appear with distinct symptoms and health challenges. Each type of eating disorder requires a unique and tailored approach that includes a set of treatment plans and therapy.

Understanding eating disorders is essential for finding the best care and treatment options to improve the quality of life of individuals. With emotional support, tailored care plans, and a humanised approach, people with eating disorders can take control of their lives and be happy again.

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Eating Disorder Symptoms

The symptoms of eating disorders may vary from person to person and depend on the type of eating disorder the individual experiences. Symptoms can go from obsessively avoiding food to a tendency towards overeating and extreme focus on food.

Sometimes, these food preoccupations may impact other aspects of a person’s life, including social life and general well-being.

The most common symptoms that affect a person’s mental and physical health alongside behaviour include:

Common physical symptoms of eating disorders are:

However, not every individual with an eating disorder will experience the same set of symptoms. Also, not every individual who experiences one or more of the symptoms listed above has an eating disorder.

For precise diagnosis and to avoid misdiagnosis, it is recommended that people seek medical advice from medical professionals in the field.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders include various health challenges, each manifesting differently in a person. To receive the best care and support, it is essential to establish the correct diagnosis first.

There are six types of common eating disorders, and we will discuss each separately.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa develops due to a distorted body image that a person has about themselves. They feel like they are never thin enough and typically see distorted reflections of themselves in the mirror.

This state of mind continues with a significant tendency towards avoiding food and extreme exercising, sometimes to the extent of starvation. Anorexia nervosa commonly appears in young adulthood or adolescence, during the significant transition from being a child towards adulthood. However, like all eating disorders, anorexia can occur at any age.

This is a characteristic and challenging period for every individual, which among other things, also affects the development of self-awareness, perception and self-esteem.

Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

Anorexia nervosa can result in serious health consequences for the individual, including:

In more severe cases, anorexia nervosa can result in life-threatening consequences.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by eating large amounts of food, which people later regret and purge to unload the extra calories. The process is often called binge eating, while purging behaviours may include vomiting, fasting, laxatives, or excessive exercise.

Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

Bulimia nervosa can further lead to more serious health consequences, including:

Lack of care and support in people with bulimia nervosa can have serious or life-threatening consequences such as chronic oesophagus, stomach inflammation, or heart failure.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is an eating disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of uncontrollable eating, often to the point of discomfort or pain, and a feeling of loss of control during these episodes. People with binge eating disorder may feel shame or guilt and may struggle with feeling out of control.

Common symptoms of binge eating disorders include:

Binge eating disorder can result in serious health consequences for the individual, including:

Without proper treatment and support, binge eating disorder can cause serious health risks, including cardiovascular disease and heart disease.

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Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a type of eating disorder characterised by a persistent and disrupted eating or feeding pattern resulting in a lack of nutritional and energy daily needs. ARFID is more common in children and adolescents but can also occur in adults.

Unlike other eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, the main focus of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder is not on body image or weight.

Common symptoms of ARFID include:

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ARFID can result in serious health consequences for the individual, including:

However, it’s important to highlight that there is a difference between avoidant restrictive food intake disorder and picky eating. Many children and adults tend to avoid or prefer specific foods, but this doesn’t involve an eating disorder.

ARFID is a distinct eating challenge that needs medical assessment and proper care.

Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder or a syndrome is a health challenge in which people repeatedly and unintentionally regurgitate undigested food from the stomach, re-chew it again and either swallow it or spit it out. Rumination may occur after every meal, shortly after eating.

Common symptoms of rumination disorder include:

Rumination disorder can result in serious health consequences for the individual, including:

If left untreated, rumination disorder may cause damage to the oesophagus, which can lead to further complications.


Pica involves eating or craving items that are not food. It may be regarded as an eating disorder or a feeding disorder. Either way, ingesting specific substances may be dangerous to your health and life, requiring proper medical attention. Individuals with pica risk serious health concerns, including infections and poisoning.

Common non-food items that people with pica may consume include:

Pica can result in serious health consequences for the individual, including:

Whilst most people outgrow pica, sometimes it can be dangerous to a person’s health. For example, the person may eat toxic, infectious or sharp-edged items. Proper assessment and therapy have shown promising results in treating pica.

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Treatment of Eating Disorders

Whilst there are a number of treatment options and relapse prevention strategies available for people with eating disorders, the right therapy depends on the individual. In most cases, the treatments include a set of approaches, including home care, psychotherapy, counselling and medications.

However, emotional support and understanding from family, friends and the community is the most crucial segment in treating eating disorders.

Home Care

Eating disorders can persist for a long period of time, and might need additional care and support at home to overcome the challenge. Home care entails experienced and professional caregivers who provide physical and mental health support to the individual in need.

Home care typically involves assistance with the following:

In addition, home carers provide emotional comfort and encourage people to embrace their challenges and do their best to overcome them.


Psychotherapy can be an effective treatment option for individuals with eating disorders, particularly when combined with other forms of treatment, such as nutritional counselling and medication management.

There are several types of psychotherapy that may be helpful for people with eating disorders, including:

There are also specialised forms of psychotherapy that are designed specifically for individuals with eating disorders. For example, family-based therapy (FBT) is often used for adolescents with eating disorders and involves working with the entire family to promote healthy eating habits and a positive body and self-image.

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Nutritional Counselling

Nutritional counselling helps improve the relationship between a person’s eating behaviour and body image. This type of treatment showed very positive results in supporting people with eating disorders.


There are no separate medications designed for treating eating disorders. However, many health professionals may prescribe medications for treating underlying mental health challenges, such as depression. Medications always go in hand with psychotherapy.

Support Groups

Hearing other people’s stories and understanding that you are not the only one struggling with this kind of mental health challenge can significantly increase your chance of overcoming eating disorders. It can instil hope and a sense of belonging and acceptance, values that are fundamental to every human being, with or without a mental health challenge.

Minimising Treatment Rejection

Treatment rejection in people with an eating disorder is probably the most challenging part of the therapy. There are several reasons why an individual with an eating disorder may reject treatment, including:

To overcome treatment rejection in eating disorders, it is essential first to understand the person’s perspective and try to build trust and a solid relationship through psychotherapy. This often includes showing empathy, listening, and creating a safe and nurturing environment for the person to share their experiences and concerns.

Another approach to addressing treatment rejection is identifying the individual’s motivation for change. Understanding what is essential to people and how the eating disorder prevents them from achieving their goals may make them more open to treatment.

Sometimes, including family members or other loved ones in the treatment process may be necessary.

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Who Is at Risk?

Eating disorders can affect people of any age and gender. It is a mental health challenge that can occur to anyone, although there are some biological, psychological and social factors that play a role in developing an eating disorder.

Eating Disorders in Men

Many people can experience a negative perception of their body shape at some point in their lives. Despite the widespread belief that women are more susceptible to developing unrealistic body images, the latest numbers show that about 1 in 3 people with an eating disorder is male.

For example, men can engage in different behaviours with eating disorders, including binge eating, purging and fasting to lose weight. However, due to social stigma and feelings of shame, males may sometimes ignore their symptoms and delay seeking help.

Eating Disorders in Women

Eating disorders are a common mental and physical health challenge among young girls and women. It usually develops between the age of 18-21 as a result of the pressures that women experience when trying to achieve unrealistic body shape ideals.

With the prevalence of various social media campaigns and fashion trends, more young girls and women tend to achieve “perfection” in their physical appearance. This often results in striving for unhealthy weight loss, intense fear of gaining weight and creating a negative self-image.

Eating disorders affecting young teens and women often include:

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Eating Disorders in Teens

Transitioning from childhood to early adulthood phase comes with a number of changes and mental health challenges. Many teenagers may develop a distorted image of their body shape and physical appearance through this natural physiological and psychological process.

The additional challenge appears when young teens tend to cover the symptoms from their parents, family and friends. Fortunately, a holistic approach and emotional support can help young individuals overcome these mental health challenges.

Are Eating Disorders Genetic?

Based on research, eating disorders are not genetic. However, certain genetic factors may lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Medical experts report potential genetic influences of anorexia nervosa, including a family history of eating disorders. However, more research needs to be done in this area.

Stigmatisation Towards Individuals with Eating Disorders

Stigmatisation towards individuals with eating disorders is more common than most believe. Although it is a serious mental health challenge, many people believe it is a lifestyle choice and disregard the importance of giving support and compassion to people with eating disorders.

Social and lack of understanding of eating disorders persist in our society, community, and closest family and friends circles. Therefore, along with the eating disorder, it is essential to raise awareness about stigma and discrimination against people with anorexia, bulimia and related feeding challenges.

Using compassion and acceptance instead of judgement can significantly improve the quality of life of a person facing any mental health challenges, including an eating disorder.

Eating Disorder and Substance Abuse

The lack of proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment in people with eating disorders can often lead to substance misuse. Due to a lack of understanding or other emotional struggles, people often believe that these substances can help them overcome difficult times.

Providing the right support at the right time is crucial to prevent any potential further damage.

Social Media and Eating Disorders

Social media can have positive and negative effects on individuals with eating disorders. For example, social media provide platforms for individuals to share their experiences and connect with others experiencing similar struggles. It can also provide a source of support and encouragement for people who have recovered from eating disorders.

However, social media can also be a triggering and negative environment for individuals with eating disorders. The constant overflow of images and messages promoting unrealistic beauty standards and “perfect” body shapes can contribute to dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, which are risk factors for developing eating disorders. Social media can also promote myths and misconceptions about food and weight, which can worsen eating habits.

How to Overcome Eating Disorders

Every person with an eating disorder requires a personal and individual care plan. Sometimes it may include a combination of medication treatment and psychotherapy.

The duration of the treatment depends on the individual, and it can take months or sometimes years of care and support.

Importance of Body Positivity

The body positivity movement promotes awareness and acceptance of our body’s unique shapes and appearances. The importance of body positivity is related to embracing our differences and feeling comfortable in our own skin. It helps increase our self-esteem and improve our physical and mental health, including our emotional and social relationships.

Support for People with Eating Disorders

Being different means having unique strengths and values that set us apart from everyone else. At Leaf Complex Care, we embrace diversity and promote self-reliance to every individual we support.

Our experienced support workers provide support and help people build their inner trust by focusing on people’s skills and unique capabilities.

Access to personalised care plans and humanised support can help people with eating disorders build a strong relationship with themselves and overcome mental health challenges that interfere with their daily functioning.

We are dedicated to providing support and delivering person-centred care to empower people to have a meaningful and independent life.

For more information, contact our offices in Bristol, SloughMidlands and Somerset.