Skip to main content

Eating Disorders

Information for parents

Eating disorders are a complex combination of physical and mental issues. They are manifested by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours around food. Symptoms vary between patients and some may have a mix of symptoms.

Eating disorders are generally associated with people who have low self-esteem and feelings of self-loathing.

They can often manifest themselves in high achieving individuals who have an obsessive desire to seek and achieve perfection.

Eating disorders most commonly heard about are Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge eating (or compulsive eating).

Anorexia (Anorexia Nervosa)

This often starts during the teens and may be a result of emotional problems connected with becoming an adult, as well as low self-esteem and, in some cases, physical or emotional abuse.

It shares many features with bulimia. People with anorexia develop a fear of fatness that goes far beyond that of most dieters. The need to control their weight dominates all other emotions and food becomes the central issue of their lives.

For the anorexic person, absolute control over their own body might be one way of dealing with their perceived lack of control over all other aspects of their lives.

They are obsessed with food and being thin, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation. They may exercise excessively or simply not eat enough calories.

Typically, anorexic people tend to be perfectionist in other areas of their lives and tend to be high achievers academically. Obsessions with weight and shape, exercising and the use of vomiting and laxatives to reduce weight are often major elements.

People with anorexia have a very low body weight, which can cause serious medical problems, including poor circulation, brittle bones, infertility, fainting and dizziness, dehydration and kidney damage.

The consequences of inadequate nutrition in the long term can be slowed heartbeat, low blood pressure and reduced body temperature.

It's important to seek medical help as soon as possible because some of these problems, if left untreated, may not improve when the person recovers from anorexia.

Anorexia is estimated to affect between one and five teenage women in every 100,000, and the age at which most cases develop is 16 to 17.

For boys who develop the problem (about five to ten per cent of all cases), 12 is the peak age.

What are the symptoms?

The stereotypical image of an anorexic is of a bed-bound teenage girl looking as though she's just arrived from one of the world's famine spots.

But it's important to remember that this kind of intense starvation is not the only symptom of an eating disorder. A person with an eating disorder may maintain a normal body weight and so their condition may go unnoticed for years. This is more often the case with bulimia.

Anorexia symptoms may include:

  • Thin appearance
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair that thins, breaks or falls out
  • Soft, downy hair covering the body
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (no periods - amenorrhea)
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Frequently being cold
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration

Emotional and behavioural symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Refusal to eat
  • Denial of hunger
  • Excessive exercise
  • Flat mood or lack of emotion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation with food

Things that family and friends may notice include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Eating only a few certain "safe" foods, usually those low in fat and calories
  • Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or spitting food out after chewing
  • Moving food around the plate, playing with food or hiding things under cutlery etc
  • Weighing food
  • Cooking elaborate meals for others but refusing to eat them themselves
  • Repeated weighing of themselves
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Wearing baggy or layered clothing
  • Complaining about being fat

Bulimia (Bulimia nervosa)

Like anorexia, bulimia develops from an obsessive desire to be thin. However, instead of not eating, the person alternates between frantic bingeing (eating huge amounts of food in one large sitting) and drastic purging (this is getting rid of food that has been eaten by self-induced vomiting and the abuse of laxatives and diuretics) or periods of excessive fasting and exercise.

In between these binge-purge episodes, they may eat very little or skip meals altogether.

In the long-term, treating the body in this way, can cause irregular heartbeat and damaged kidneys. Continual vomiting also seriously erodes tooth enamel.

Although anorexia is the illness that receives the most media attention, bulimia is in fact far more common. Both occur mainly - though not exclusively - in females. Bulimia is estimated to affect between 1% and 2% of women aged 15 to 40.

Bulimia symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal bowel functioning
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Swollen salivary glands in the cheeks
  • Sores in the throat and mouth
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Dry skin
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sores, scars or calluses on the knuckles or hands
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (no periods - amenorrhea)

Emotional and behavioural symptoms of bulimia may include:

  • Constant dieting
  • Feelings of not being able to control eating behaviours
  • Eating until the point of discomfort or pain
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Laxative use
  • Excessive exercise
  • Unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • Having a distorted, excessively negative body image
  • Going to the bathroom after eating or during meals
  • Hoarding food
  • Depression or anxiety

Binge Eating (Compulsive eating)

When someone has a binge-eating disorder, they regularly eat excessive amounts of food (binge), sometimes for hours on end. They may eat when they’re not hungry and continue eating even long after they are uncomfortably full.

Compulsive eaters differ from people with bulimia in that, after binge eating, they don't try to get rid of what they've eaten. Many of them feel powerless to control their desire to keep 'comfort eating'. They may develop health problems as a result of carrying too much weight.

Binge eating symptoms may include:

  • Periodically not exercising control over consumption of food
  • Eating an unusually large amount of food at one time - more than a normal person would eat in the same amount of time.
  • Eating much more quickly during binge episodes than during normal eating episodes
  • Eating until physically uncomfortable
  • Eating large amounts of food even when they are not really hungry
  • Usually someone will eat alone during binge eating episodes, in order to avoid discovery of the disorder

Emotional and behavioural symptoms of binge-eating disorder may include:

  • Eating to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Eating much more food during a binge episode than during a normal meal or snack
  • Eating faster during binge episodes
  • Feeling that the eating behaviour is out of control
  • Frequent dieting without weight loss
  • Frequently eating alone
  • Hoarding food
  • Hiding empty food containers
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted or upset over the amount eaten
  • Depression or anxiety

How can I help my teen?

Teenage girls are at the greatest risk of developing anorexia, and parents may miss many of the signs.

They may not share their feelings about their body with you. They may also exercise, vomit and take laxatives secretly.

Low mood may be difficult to spot in an uncommunicative teenager, and lack of interest in sex is not something most parents worry about in their teenage daughters.

Good communication and trying to remain open are obviously crucial, but eating habits may be the only easily noted sign.

Many people with anorexia develop a detailed knowledge of the nutritional content of foods, including the crucial role of carbohydrates in maintaining body weight, which they avoid.

As part of their developing knowledge and interest in food, some people prepare elaborate meals for other people, but eat very little of it themselves.

Attempting to miss meals, not eating with the family or visiting the toilet soon after eating may also be reasons to be concerned, although they're not conclusive proof of a problem.

Eating disorders in youngsters

Eating disorders can affect people of any age. In children, it's sometimes hard to tell what an eating disorder is and what's simply a whim, a new fad, or experimentation with a new diet or other eating styles. In addition, many girls and sometimes boys go on diets to lose weight, but stop dieting after a short time.

If you're a parent or guardian, be careful not to mistake occasional dieting with an eating disorder. On the other hand, be alert for eating patterns and beliefs that may signal unhealthy behaviour, as well as peer pressure that may trigger eating disorders.

What professional help is available?

Therapies available on the NHS include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
  • family therapy
  • psychodynamic therapy

If you are worried talk to your GP – that’s always a good place to start. They will know what help is available locally and can make referrals as necessary.

Further Reading

Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e) by Ulrike Schmidt, Janet Treasure (Psychology Press,1993)
The aim of this self-help book is to empower sufferers to take control of their own lives and tackle their eating difficulties in their own home. It addresses the specific problems faced on a daily basis by bulimia sufferers and provides step-by-step advice for dealing with this condition.

Helping People with Eating Disorders by Bob Palmer (John Wiley and Sons, 2000)
Useful resource for those interested in eating disorders and their treatment.

Treatment Manual for Anorexia Nervosa by J. Lock, D. Le Grange, W. S. Agras and C. Dare (Guilford Press, 2002)
Practical manual offering a step-by-step guide to the treatment of anorexia nervosa in adolescents, with family being the focus of the treatment.

Diet of Despair by A. Paterson (Lucky Duck Publishing Ltd, 2002) A book about eating disorders for young people and their families, written by a woman who suffered a serious eating disorder, and recovered.

The Diet for Teenagers Only By C. Wiatt and B. Schroeder (Harper Collins Ltd, 2005)
For teenagers who struggle with food and their weight, this book serves up fun, safe and inspirational ways for teenagers to be healthy &, where appropriate, lose weight, whilst helping them to love & respect their body.

Helping Your Teenager Beat Depression by K. Manassis, MD (Woodbine House, Inc.2004)
A problem-solving approach for families that enables parents to become effective partners in the treatment of their child’s depression, includes informative chapters around eating habits and control.

Helping Children Cope with Anxiety by J. Eckersley (Sheldon Press, 2006)
Looks at how the pressures of twenty-first-century living can affect children up to the age of 16, & what parents can do to help. Includes information on anorexia and eating disorders.

Wise Guides – Self-Esteem by A. Naik (Hodder Children’s Books, 2005)
A book for young people. This essential guide provides you with lots of hints and tips on how to think positively about your friendships, your family, your body and your life.

Support groups and sources of information

Local Support (also see 'related services')

Sheffield Eating Disorders Service
A specialist eating disorder service provided by Sheffield Care Trust which provides assessment, individual and group therapy and support for people with severe anorexia/bulimia nervosa. A treatment plan is agreed and individual or group therapy is provided in the outpatient clinic. Young people aged under 16 years are usually referred to the sector Child and Family Therapy Teams. Limited advice and support to relatives and carers. Referral is via a mental health worker.

St Georges Community Health Centre
Winter Street, Sheffield S3 7ND

Office days and times: Mon-Fri 8.30am-4.30pm
Contact Name: Maggie Young, Team Co-ordinator

Telephone 1: 0114 271 6938
Telephone 2: 0114 271 6930
Telephone 2 Details: and answerphone

Fax: 0114 226 2223

Other Support and Information

Provides confidential telephone counselling for children, young people and adults on any issue including eating disorders, depression, loneliness, anxieties and phobias. The website has a forum and an online counselling portal.

Cardinal Heenan Centre
326 High Road
Ilford IG1 1QP

Tel: 0845 122 8622 (Mon-Fri 10.00am-1.00pm and 7.00-10.00pm)


Last Updated: 19/09/2017
Back to top Contact US
Powered by Open Objects © Open Objects Software Limited