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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of eating disorders

Tirohanga whānui ki ngā raruraru kainga

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that lead to serious and unhealthy eating patterns. There are several types of eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa (often called anorexia) is one of the most well-known. Bulimia nervosa (often called bulimia) is another.

Eating disorders affect people of all ages and all social classes. They are also becoming more common and affecting people at a younger age.

Most eating disorders are more common in women. But men are also affected and can find it harder to ask for and get help.

Someone with an eating disorder has a higher risk of considering suicide. If this is a concern for you or someone close to you, see Suicide prevention for advice and support options.

It is impossible to identify exactly what causes anyone's eating disorder. But there are three general groups of risk factors:

Diagnosing eating disorders

There are several changes that can suggest an eating disorder. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, you may notice some of these changes. Exactly which ones will depend on the person and their eating disorder.

Changes in behaviour

It is common for people with eating disorders to exercise too much and make frequent trips to the toilet. They may avoid snack foods, have unusual eating habits and weigh themselves a lot. They may also abuse alcohol or drugs or make excuses to avoid social situations.

Changes in body

Eating disorders can cause changes such as extreme weight loss (anorexia) or constantly changing weight. They may have hair loss, swelling, dry skin and growth of downy body hair (lanugo). They may also have tiredness, discoloured teeth or scarring on the back of their hands from induced vomiting.

Changes in mood

Someone with an eating disorder may feel helpless, be depressed and have an anxiety disorder. They may also show perfectionist tendencies or seem overly worried about their body size.

Men with anorexia are often preoccupied with bodybuilding, weightlifting, or muscle toning. This may lower their testosterone levels and cause loss of interest in sex. It may also cause thinning hair or serious hair loss and growth of downy body hair.

If someone has had an eating disorder for a long time, it can cause physical, psychological and social effects.

Treating eating disorders

If you think that you or a relative or friend may have an eating disorder, seek professional help as soon as possible. Treatment is more successful when people with eating disorders get help early. This is especially so for tamariki (children) and rangatahi (young people).

Rarely, someone with an eating disorder can become so malnourished that they need emergency treatment. If someone you care about with an eating disorder has collapsed, is having seizures or is confused, call 111.

If someone is having severe medical problems from their eating disorder, they may need to be admitted to hospital.

There are also things you can do you to help yourself with an eating disorder.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Self-care with an eating disorder

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2024.


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Review key: HIEDI-73561