Eating disorders

Eating disorders can affect anyone at anytime. Find out what you can do to support yourself or someone you know who might have an eating disorder.
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Girl standing apart from her friends

Eating disorders happen when you have an emotional issue or behaviour related to food that makes it hard or impossible for you to eat healthily.

Young people go through phases of needing more and less food as they are growing up and becoming mature. You may also be leaving home or sorting out your own food for the first time. These changes and new responsibilities can create stress. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid over-eating or under-eating.

For some people, eating can become a problem. This can happen to people of any size and age, and it happens to boys as well as girls. Many people think it is related to being unhappy with your weight, or how you look, but there are often other reasons too, which can be very complicated.

Take action: Although only some people have eating disorders, everyone will benefit from having a healthy relationship with food

Types of Eating Disorder

There are many different kinds of eating disorder, but the three most common are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa - when a person tries to lose weight, buy starving themselves and/or exercising excessively
  • Bulimia - when a person binge eats and then makes themselves sick, or takes laxatives
  • Binge Eating Disorder - when a person eats a lot of food in a short amount of time

There are others, and people may have some symptoms but not others.

Instant expert: To find out more about different types of eating disorders that might affect a young person go to the beat eating disorders website.

If you, or a friend, have a concern

Most young people who are worried about any aspect of their weight, eating, or stress as a result of either of these, talk to their parents or carers first. You can also talk to your school health nurse. There is a School Health Nurse in every secondary school in Oxfordshire, and they are experts in young people's health.

You can also go to your Doctor, with or without your parents or carers.

Take action: If you are age 16-17, you can also self-refer for local support from from Oxfordshire CAMHS.

A serious problem

Under-eating or over-eating when you are a child or young person can damage your health for the rest of your life, especially if combined with depression, anxiety or substance misuse. You can cause permanent serious damage to bones and your digestive system. Some people have even died.

Teenagers may be particularly at risk because their needs for nutrition change a lot. They also feel the pressure to look good more powerfully than either adults of children. Hormones and other changes make it harder  to control behaviour, while growth spurts may include putting on weight or unexpected body shape changes. They may also be more inclined to blame themselves and try to solve problems on their own.

If you or a friend have a problem, then taking action early can make the problem easier to solve. 

Take Action: Learning more about healthy eating, sticking to regular meal and exercise plans and being kind to yourself are simple actions which can be helpful.

Bigorexia, orthorexia and over-exercising

Bigorexia, sometimes called muscle dysmorphia, refers to someone damaging their health through building bulk and muscle. It is usually a problem for young men, but young women are also at risk. Risky levels of exercise, extreme diets and taking non-prescription drugs like steroids or diet pills can all cause permanent health problems.

Orthorexia occurs when someone's interest in eating the right diet and being healthy becomes so intense and all-consuming that it starts to cause them health problems. They may start to exclude normally eaten and healthy foods, refuse certain kinds of foods, fast frequently and dangerously or develop strange beliefs around food and nutrition. This can cause serious health damage, especially for teenagers. 

All kinds of eating disorder can be combined with over-exercising. Most people are more prone to under-exercising, but some people may over-exercise to mask an eating disorder or another problem, or because they find it compulsive. Injury and health harm can occur through exercising at risky levels, although you need to be exercising at very high levels before this happens.

Although eating disorders can happen at any age, teenagers and young adults are most at risk. This is to do with them being at a developmental stage where they worry more about what others think, are keen to copy and surpass other people, and are setting health habits for their life. They may also miss warning signals from their bodies because they are growing and changing so fast. Teenagers and young adults are also more quickly inspired and less likely to consider risk - so some people feel that the problem is made worse by 24 hour gyms, celebrity culture and online inspiration.

Tale action: People who are sleep deprived are more likely to eat too much or too little. Find out more about improving your sleep.

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