An eating disorder is a diagnosed type of disordered eating.
A person experiences disordered eating when they have an unhealthy relationship with food and eating. This can include following a strict diet, skipping meals, or binge eating. A person who experiences disordered eating may also try to make up for breaking the diet by exercising or vomiting.
Disordered eating habits and behaviours can lead to the development of an eating disorder. They can impact every aspect of a young person's life.
We can all experience unhealthy eating habits from time to time.
Unhealthy eating habits can come and go, but for some people, they can become a real problem. These behaviours, or extreme concerns about weight or how our body looks, are a sign that it’s time to seek support.
Read our fact sheet about disordered eating and eating disorders
Disordered eating often begins with dieting or over-exercising, but lots of other factors can increase the risk that this may develop into an eating disorder. These include:
- family factors – like a family history of eating disorders
- individual factors – such as low self-esteem, wanting to do things perfectly all the time, having an unrealistic perception of what their body looks like or should look like
- outside factors – like the influence of the media and social pressures to look a certain way
- life factors – certain stressors like exams, work, relationships and feeling overwhelmed.
Eating disorders are a serious health issue, damaging and at times even life-threatening. If you’re having problems with disordered eating or body image, it’s important to seek professional support. The sooner you ask for help, the faster your recovery will be.
What are the symptoms and warning signs?
The most common examples of disordered eating (which may develop into signs and symptoms of a type of eating disorder) are:
- using food as a way to manage or express emotions
- repetitive or obsessive dieting
- frequent binge eating
- skipping meals
- avoiding a type of food or food group
- self-induced vomiting
- using diet pills or using other medication to influence weight or appetite
- thinking and talking about food, weight and body appearance a lot of the time
- feeling out of control in relation to eating patterns
- worrying about places that involve food and eating
- preoccupation with exercise or body building
- feeling guilt and or shame about eating patterns
- fearing gaining weight
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty concentrating
- often feeling tired and low in energy
People will experience these symptoms differently. It’s important to seek professional support to make sense of them. A general practitioner (GP) or talking to someone that you trust – like a family member or friend – can help.
Common types of eating disorders
People with any body type can experience eating disorders. Eating disorders don't always affect body weight.
Anorexia nervosa is when a person experiences all of the following:
- getting less energy (food) than their body requires to maintain health
- having an intense fear of gaining weight
- seeing their body size or shape in a distorted and disturbed way
People experiencing anorexia nervosa also have weight loss and/or are underweight.
There are two types of anorexia nervosa:
- restrictive (not eating enough and/or exercising a lot more than food intake)
- binge-purge when a person eats (sometimes to excess) and then through some method removes that food.
Many people may change between these types.
Bulimia nervosa involves a cycle of binge eating (eating a large amount of food quickly, in a way that feels uncontrolled), followed by actions to get rid of the food eaten.
People experiencing bulimia nervosa usually have strong feelings of distress, guilt and shame about these experiences, and are often very critical of their body.
Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder involves repeated episodes of binge-eating, often with a sense of loss of control while eating.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
A person may avoid eating certain foods based on the sensory characteristics such as the smell, appearance or texture. This can lead to unintentional weight loss and other issues with nutrition and physical health.
Other specified feeding or eating disorders
Is used to describe an eating disorder that significantly impacts a person’s life, but does not meet full criteria for one of the other types of eating disorder.
If you would like more information about other eating disorders visit The Butterfly Foundation or the InsideOut Institute.
What are the related mental health problems?
Young people experiencing eating disorders are more likely to have these other mental health difficulties at the same time:
- neurodevelopmental disorders (such as ADHD, conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder)
- substance use disorders
- self harming behaviours and suicidal thinking.
What to do if you think you experience disordered eating
Many people with disordered eating feel that their experiences aren’t bad enough, or they aren’t "thin enough" to need professional help.
No matter what a person weighs, how much or little they eat, anybody experiencing unhealthy eating patterns and distress about how they look should seek professional support.
It’s a good idea to try to find help sooner rather than later. The earlier you get support, the quicker you can start recovering.
Self-help tips to support recovery
Alongside professional help, if you think you may be developing signs of unhealthy eating habits, there are lots of things that you can do to help get on top of things.
Our headspace clinicians provided their tips for helping young people recover from mental illness. Here’s what they recommend:
Reach out for support from a close friend, family member, school counsellor or others who have experienced an eating disorder in online support groups, like The Butterfly Foundation and the InsideOut Institute. Knowing that you’re not alone on your recovery journey can be really powerful.
Try to be open about your feelings – feelings of anger, fear, exhaustion, guilt, shame – they are all part of being human. Being open and honest about these feelings with supportive people can help to remind you that you’re not alone, and to find self-acceptance.
Disordered eating can be tough and at times you might forget there is more to you than these challenges. Reconnecting with the other parts of you can help to build up your identity ‘outside’ of the disorder.
Part of the recovery process can be getting to know yourself again, or even re-defining yourself in some ways. Try getting back into things you used to enjoy or experiment with new things.
Recovery can take some time and it can feel exhausting, so try not to be hard on yourself if things aren’t going well. Keep a journal, to record your achievements and successes along the way. When you hit a rough patch, looking back at this journal can help keep your energy and motivation up
Celebrate the wins that you do have, even if they are small. Show yourself a lot of love and pride throughout these wins.
How can I get help?
It can be a good idea to see a general practitioner (GP) who can help support you with your physical health needs as well as assist you in accessing the right mental health support.
You can make an appointment to chat to someone at your local headspace centre, or find online and phone support at eheadspace. If you’re at school or university, you might be able to access a counselling or student wellbeing service.
Other useful websites
- The Butterfly Foundation – resources, phone, email, and live webchat support
- InsideOut Institute – information about eating disorders
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 2 August 2021