Eating disorders

Posted: Jul 05 2021

Our bodies need food for the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. However, for some people control of what goes into their bodies, and how they use the energy that food provides, can become an unhealthy obsession.

An eating disorder can be a complex and serious mental health condition which is marked by an unhealthy relationship with food. Around 1 million Australians are affected by an eating disorder[1]. The most common types are:

  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED) - consuming very large quantities of food even when not hungry
  • Bulimia Nervosa - bingeing on food, but then purging the food by vomiting, or by taking laxatives or diet pills; and
  • Anorexia Nervosa – being severely underweight but having a preoccupation with food and fear of putting on weight.

There are other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED) which don't necessarily align with any specific disorder. People with OSFED commonly have very disruptive eating habits and can have a distorted body image.

Signs and symptoms

Some of the signs that you, or someone you know, may have an eating disorder include:

  • a preoccupation and concern about appearance, food and gaining weight
  • extreme dissatisfaction with body shape — wanting to lose weight even though friends or family worry that you are underweight
  • a fear of gaining weight
  • letting people think you have eaten when you haven't
  • being secretive about your eating habits because you know they are unhealthy
  • feeling anxious, upset or guilty when you consider eating
  • feeling you are not in control around food
  • continuously checking your body — for example, weighing yourself or pinching your waist
  • making yourself vomit or using laxatives in order to lose weight.

What causes an eating disorder?

It is unlikely that an eating disorder has one single cause - more often there is a combination of many factors, feelings or pressures which leads a person to use food, or the limitation of food, to deal with painful situations or feelings.

When should I seek support from a professional?

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from an eating disorder, the earlier treatment begins, the better the outcomes will be. Disordered eating can cause harm to the body, so your GP will undertake a thorough examination of you physically. A mental health professional may then be engaged, with longer term treatments include counselling, nutrition education, medication and person-centred step-care. If the person with the disorder is young, then a family approach may be taken to engage family members on how they can provide support regarding the eating disorder.

Online resources

The Butterfly FoundationThe Butterfly Foundation National Helpline, 1800 33 4673, offers information and support for people suffering eating disorders.
InsideOut Institute for Eating DisordersThe InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders
is dedicated to improving the lives of people with eating disorders and those who care for them.
HeadspaceHeadspace has a variety of resources available relating to eating disorders, particularly for young people and their families.

Reviewed by Sarah Davies, registered psychologist.

[1] Deloitte Access Economics (2015). Investing in need: cost-effective interventions for eating disorders. Report commissioned for Butterfly Foundation. Sydney: Butterfly Foundation.

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Posted: Jul 05 2021


The information contained here is of a general nature and does not take into account your personal medical situation. The information is not a substitute for independent professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or used for therapeutic purposes. Should you require specific medical information, please seek advice from your healthcare practitioner. Health Partners does not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information provided. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them.

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