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HealthInfo Canterbury

Overview of eating disorders

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

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

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

Important

If you or a friend is thinking seriously about suicide and needs help, phone the Suicide crisis phone line 0508‑828‑865 or Lifeline 0800‑543‑354 (available 24/7). Or you can contact your local mental health crisis team:

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

It's impossible to identify exactly what causes anyone's eating disorder, as we're all unique. However, there are three general groups of risk factors: sociocultural factors (things to do with society as a whole), family factors, and individual factors, including a genetic component.

Diagnosing eating disorders

There are a number of changes that can suggest an eating disorder. These will vary for each individual and depend on the type of eating disorder they have.

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

Changes in body

Eating disorders can cause physical changes such as extreme weight loss (anorexia) or constantly changing weight, hair loss, swelling, dry skin and growth of downy body hair (lanugo), 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, have an anxiety disorder, show perfectionist tendencies, or seem overly worried about their body size.

Men with anorexia are often preoccupied with body-building, weight-lifting, 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, it's important to seek professional help as soon as possible. Treatment is more successful when people with eating disorders get help early, especially for children and young people.

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

There are also a number of 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. Endorsed by the South Island Eating Disorders Service, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed January 2021.

Sources

Page reference: 75495

Review key: HIEDI-73561