Eating Disorders

When you live with an eating disorder, you use food and weight to cope with your emotions.

What is an eating disorder?

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are types of mental health disorders where you are very concerned about your weight and shape, and follow unhealthy eating behaviours, like eating too much or too little.

Most people base their self-worth on many different things, such as their relationships, jobs, school work, creativity and so on. With an eating disorder, however, you base your self-worth mostly or entirely in terms of your shape and weight, and how well you are able to manage these. This leads you to constantly think about or change the ways you eat, exercise and control your shape and weight. If these thoughts and behaviours impact your daily life and relationships, you might need support.

Any person of any age, gender or background can develop an eating disorder, but teenagers and young women are more often affected.

It is important to know that, with the right treatment and support, you can recover from an eating disorder.

Are there different types of eating disorders?

There are many different types of eating disorders. Some of the most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder; these have distinct, expected symptoms. There are also other types of eating disorders with mixed sets of symptoms.

  • Anorexia nervosa

    If you have anorexia, you limit how much food you eat to try control your weight. This leads to you losing large and unhealthy amounts of weight. You are likely to have strong fears of gaining weight and to believe you are overweight, even when your weight is low. 

  • Bulimia nervosa

    When you have bulimia, you eat large amounts of food in a very short space of time and then do different things to avoid putting on weight. These things can include making yourself vomit; taking laxatives; dieting or fasting from food; and exercising too much. This tends to happen on a regular basis and in a patterned way. You often feel a sense of shame over these behaviours and try to hide them from others.

  • Binge eating disorder

    With a binge eating disorder, you eat large portions of food in an uncontrolled way until you are uncomfortably full; this is called bingeing. This happens regularly and you may have specific foods you prefer to use for this. Usually, you do not do anything to avoid gaining weight and as a result you gain a significant amount of weight over time. You often go through feelings of shame, guilt or self-hatred after bingeing.

  • Other specified feeding and eating disorders

    Many people with an eating disorder have other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). With OSFED, your symptoms are not exactly the same as specific eating disorders, like bulimia or anorexia. Instead, you can have some symptoms of these specific disorders or other, different symptoms. These symptoms may have developed from or turn into another specific eating disorder, or they may happen on their own. It is just as important to get help for OFSED as it is for other eating disorders.

What are the signs of an eating disorder?

What are the signs of an eating disorder?

Some common symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • following strict rules around food, like counting calories, limiting how much you eat, or avoiding certain foods  
  • avoiding social situations which involve food or meals
  • making yourself vomit or using laxatives after you eat
  • binge eating
  • exercising very often or with strict routines
  • spending a lot of time checking and worrying about your shape and weight
  • feeling very unhappy with your body or seeing it differently to others
  • stopping your usual social activities and hobbies
  • being upset by any comments about exercise, food, or body shape and weight

 There are also physical symptoms of eating disorders, which include:

  • losing or putting on a lot of weight
  • having digestion problems
  • feeling very tired, dizzy or cold
  • noticing changes to or loss of your period
  • getting swollen cheeks or damage to your teeth from vomiting.

If you have an eating disorder, you can go through any mix of these symptoms. You may also have some of these symptoms without having an eating disorder.

It can sometimes be difficult for you or your family and friends to recognise if you have an eating disorder. This is because a person with an eating disorder might be a healthy weight, not only underweight or overweight. They can feel shame or guilt and do a huge amount to hide how they think and act. They also may not realise they have a problem, or might not want to change their behaviour because it feels important to them at the time.

If you, your friends or family are in any way unsure or worried about your relationship with food or your eating behaviours, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor for advice and support.

What causes eating disorders?

What causes eating disorders?

There is no single cause for eating disorders. However, you might be more likely to develop an eating disorder if you:

  • have a family history of eating disorders, depression or addiction
  • have a personal or family history of obesity
  • were teased or bullied, especially about your weight and shape
  • went through physical or sexual abuse
  • have low self-esteem or anxiety
  • have a competitive, obsessive or perfectionist personality
  • avoid conflict or find it difficult to express your emotions.

Where can I get help for eating disorders?

Where can I get help for eating disorders?

If you are worried that you or someone you love has an eating disorder, it is important to get help.

A good place to start is by speaking to your family doctor, or GP, who can do a check-up, chat about your symptoms, and refer you for treatment.

You can also get more information or guidance about eating disorders from an experienced mental health nurse through St Patrick’s Mental Health Services’ Support and Information Line. This runs from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays), and you can call its team on 01 249 3333 or email If you call or email outside of these hours, a member of the team will get in touch the next working day.

How are eating disorders treated?

How are eating disorders treated?

You can recover from an eating disorder with the right support.

Eating disorders have both mental and physical health effects. If you have an eating disorder, it is important to know that the sooner you get help, the better the chance you have of making a full recovery.

Recognising or accepting you have an eating disorder can be a big step. It might feel overwhelming for you and your family to know what to do at first. You might find it helpful to see a medical professional, especially someone who specialises in eating disorders; they will be able to assess you, check how serious your symptoms are and recommend the best treatment options with you and your family.

Types of treatment

The most suitable treatment for you is based on what physical and psychological symptoms you have and how severe these are, along with other factors like your age, your support networks, and the underlying causes of your eating behaviours.

You may need to see a few different professionals to help you with the range of your symptoms. The main focuses of treatment for eating disorders are:

  • improving your nutrition
  • restoring and maintaining your physical health
  • recovering and managing your mental health.

Your treatment can take place in different settings, depending on your needs: you might be treated as an inpatient in a medical or psychiatric hospital; take part in day patient and outpatient programmes; or attend self-help programmes or support groups.

Treatment and recovery take different lengths of time for everyone. Your treatment might be effective in a short space of time, or you might find that your eating disorder is a longer-term difficulty that needs more recovery time.

Organisations and support groups

Organisations and support groups

You might find some of the websites below helpful for more information on eating disorders or details of support groups.

  • Beat | Beat provides helplines, online support and a network of United Kingdom (UK)-wide self-help groups to help adults and young people in the UK beat their eating disorders.
  • Body Positive | BodyPositive looks at ways we can feel good in the bodies we have. 
  • Bodywhys | Bodywhys is Ireland’s national voluntary organisation dedicated to supporting the 200,000 people in Ireland affected by eating disorders. 


If you feel that you or someone you love may be exhibiting signs or symptoms of an eating disorder, it is important to get help.

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Personality Disorder