What is an eating disorder?

What are eating disorders?

According to leading eating disorder charity BEAT, eating disorders affect around 1.6 million people in the UK. Figures from national mental health charity Mind also suggest that around one woman in twenty will have eating habits which cause concern, while the Royal College of Psychiatrists believe that 1 in 150 fifteen year old girls and 1 in 1000 young men will suffer from Anorexia.

However, it is important to remember that support is available and with the right treatment people can recover from eating disorders and live a full and healthy life.

Types of eating disorder

There are broadly four types of eating disorders, each with their own unique symptoms and challenges. Please click the links for more in-depth information on each. 

People most likely to suffer from eating disorders

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ state that girls are ten times more likely than boys to suffer from an eating disorder and although eating disorders most commonly develop in adolescence they can affect both younger children and older adults. In the Trust’s Eating Disorder Service, we certainly have more female patients than male and although we are an adult service (taking patients from the age of 16) many who are referred to the service are not the stereotypical picture of an underweight adolescent girl. Patients are typically aged 18-40 although eating disorders can affect people across all ages. We do not wish to stereotype and it is important to note that while statistics state the above ANYONE can suffer from eating disorders. We have worked with Mengetedstoo who offer fantastic information about EDs in men. 

Causes of eating disorders

It is unlikely that there will be a single reason why someone has developed an eating disorder and it is more likely to be a combination of factors. These can include any of the following, although this list is not exhaustive by any means:

  • Depression/low-self esteem
  • Peer/social pressure
  • Control
  • Family difficulties
  • Emotional/psychological distress
  • Biological factors

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect a large number of people and can have serious consequences. They often develop in adolescence and do not have a single cause. Consistent with this picture is the fact that they have a high incident of “co-morbidity”, which is when there are other psychiatric or psychological problems present. These can include depression, anxiety disorder or personality disorder.

Treatment for eating disorders available on NHS

The type of treatment offered depends on the particular kind of eating disorder, and takes into account the severity, timeline, patients’ age and other potentially complicating factors. For most patients this begins with their GP. We would recommend this as your first port of call if you show signs of an eating disorder.

Most patients suffering from eating disorders are likely to receive some form of psychotherapy or counselling. This may be in conjunction with specialist advice from a skilled and experienced dietician.

The types of therapy often used in the treatment of eating disorders (please see our ‘treatment’ guide for more of this in detail.

  • Psychotherapy and counselling
  • CBT
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • CAT


It is important to remember that an eating disorder is a mental illness and that vomiting or starving are symptoms of the illness. Carers may feel anxious, guilty, helpless or even angry and want their friend, daughter or partner to be given help to make them change straight away. An especially useful resource is the BEAT website, which has helpful and sensible information for carers and partners.

With thanks to The Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust for writing this introduction which was also published in Uncovered magazine issue 3.

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