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Understanding and dealing with eating disorders – for young people

We can all experience unhealthy eating habits from time to time. We might try the latest fad or detox diet to shed a few kilos or find ourselves over-indulging when we grab takeaway with friends.

These not-so-healthy eating habits come and go –for some people, unhealthy eating habits can become a real problem. Ongoing unhealthy eating behaviours, in addition to extreme concerns about weight and how our body looks, can result in an eating disorder.

Eating disorders often begin with dieting, but lots of other factors can increase the risk that someone may develop an eating disorder. These include family factors (like a family history of eating disorders), individual factors (such as low self-esteem or wanting to do things perfectly all the time) and outside factors (like the influence of the media and social pressures to look a certain way).

Eating disorders can be serious, damaging and at times even life-threatening. If you are having problems with eating or body image, it’s a good idea to seek professional support. The sooner you can start to recover, the faster your recovery will be.
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Symptoms and warning signs
A person experiencing an eating disorder might show some of the following signs and symptoms:
  • dieting or overeating a lot
  • thinking and talking about food, weight and body appearance a lot of the time
  • avoiding  places that involve food and eating and/or spending a lot of time preparing food for others
  • feeling moody or irritable
  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • wearing clothes to hide weight loss
  • wanting to eat alone
  • playing with food during meals
  • exercising more than most people
  • feeling dizzy, faint and weak
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fears of gaining weight
  • often feeling tired and low in energy
  • frequent weighing or checking reflections
  • preoccupation with body building/weightlifting/muscle toning.
 
Related problems
Other mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, depression and substance use are also commonly experienced by people who have eating disorders.

Common types of eating disorders

There are four main types of eating disorders:

  1. Anorexia nervosa: This is when a person reduces the amount of food they eat, resulting in significant weight loss. They may have intense fears of gaining weight and generally see their body in a very negative way.

  2. Bulimia nervosa: This 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 (vomiting, using laxatives, over-exercising or not eating for long periods of time). People experiencing bulimia nervosa usually have really strong feelings of guilt and shame about these experiences.

  3. Binge eating disorder:This is when a person regularly eats large amounts of food quickly, in a way that feels uncontrolled, but then does not take actions to get rid of the food (like vomiting or using laxatives). Like bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder also involves strong feelings of distress, guilt, shame or disgust.

  4. Other specified feeding and eating disorder:This is when a person experiences eating and body difficulties that do not completely reflect the other disorders, but cause them significant distress and interferes with their daily life.

What to do if you think you have an eating disorder

Many people with eating disorders 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 help, the quicker you can start recovering.

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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.

Using the word ‘STRONG’ might help you to remember
S – Seek support from people you trust
  • Reach out for support from a close friend, family member, school counsellor or others who have experienced an eating disorder in online support groups, such as The Butterfly Foundation. Knowing that you’re not alone on your recovery journey can be really powerful.
 
T – Track your progress
  • Recovery can take some time and it can feel exhausting, so try not to be hard on yourself if signs of the eating disorder pop up from time to time.
  • It may help to keep a ‘recovery 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!
 
R – Reconnect with who you are  
  • Eating disorders can be full-on and at times you might forget there is more to you than just the disorder. Reconnecting with the other parts of you that are separate to the eating disorder 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 or things that you’ve always wanted to try!
 
O Open up about your feelings
  • 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.
 
N - Nourish your mind and body
  • Be kind to yourself and try to do things that care for your mind and body. The recovery process can be challenging, so remember to balance life out with relaxation and rest where possible.
 
G- Get back up  
  • Bumps along the road to recovery are part of the journey. Try not to be hard on yourself if signs of the eating disorder pop up from time-to-time. Refocus on your recovery aims and get back on track.
Professional Support
To get linked in with some professional support, 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 help you access mental health support.
 
There are mental health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace (online and phone support) who can help. If you are at school or university, you may be able to access a counselling or Student Wellbeing service.
Other useful websites
In addition to professional help, you might find it useful to seek support from the ED Hope Support Line, which provides phone, email, and live webchat support to people experiencing eating disorder concerns. There is also an online program called Overcoming Disordered Eating that can be very useful to use alongside professional support.
 
If you think that a friend or family member might be experiencing an eating disorder, visit Understanding eating disorders – for family and friends.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. 

Last reviewed 26 June 2017