What are eating disorders?

  • Commonly thought of as "slimmer's diseases", eating disorders are not about food, but are a way of coping with painful feelings that are difficult to talk openly about.
  • The presenting symptom is about food and its control, which seems initially to provide a solution to some of life's problems, but the solution becomes part of the problem.
  • Underlying unhappiness results from issues such as control, disempowerment and not feeling good enough.
  • The resulting low mood together with the side effects of starvation, result in the vicious cycle of an eating disorder.
  • People with eating disorders may have the quality of their life severely constrained for years and in some cases they may die. However, people do recover from eating disorders and early recognition and intervention provide the best prognosis.

Eating disorders are complex syndromes. There is no one cause of eating disorders, but some factors are likely to result in increased vulnerability to eating disorders. The trigger which precipitates an eating disorder could be just about anything which reduces self esteem.

It is a combination of these factors together with dietary restraint which lock together to trap a person in the eating disorder cycle

What are the eating disorders?

There are a number of different eating disorders, although all are driven by dietary restraint. The most common eating disorders are defined clinically by an internationally accepted set of criteria, which are published in a manual called DSM IV. They are:

Anorexia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa

Binge eating disorder.

There are other eating disorders which do not have such clearly defined clinical criteria, or which are similar to these but do not fit all the criteria, and these are known as EDNOS (Eating disorders not otherwise specified). Prevalence of clinically diagnosable eating disorders is small, approximately 1.5% of the vulnerable female adolescent and young adult population for anorexia nervosa, 2.5% for bulimia nervosa and perhaps 3.5% for EDNOS. However sub-clinical cases are certainly much more numerous, probably at least three times the diagnosable population.