What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect young people, children and adults of all ages, genders and ethnicities. They most commonly develop in adolescence but can also occur in children as young as 7 and in older adults. In the UK alone there is thought to be around 725,000 people struggling with eating disorders.

Everyone has different eating habits. Some days you may eat more than others or go through phases of eating more healthily but this doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder. An eating disorder is an illness not a diet.

When people have an eating disorder this begins to dominate their whole life, and impacts on their school/ work/ social and family life. Often people who develop an eating problem are struggling with difficult feelings or stressful events in their lives and the eating disorder can begin as a way of coping with these or regaining a sense of control. Thoughts about food, calories and body weight can take over, and are often accompanied by feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame. People can start to become isolated from friends and stop enjoying things they used to do, they might avoid eating in front of people or become panicky around food, and they may make themselves sick or want to exercise immediately after eating. They may also experience low self-esteem and self- worth, negative thoughts, low mood, self -harm and difficulty coping with life.

People can be affected by one or more type of eating disorder or find their symptoms changing as they recover. Someone with an eating disorder may also experience other mental or physical health issues at the same time as their eating disorder. Sometimes these can play a role in the eating disorder developing, or they may develop alongside or because of the eating disorder.

Types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia /Anorexia Nervosa is when someone tries to loose/keep their weight as low as possible by restricting the amount of food they eat and exercise excessively.
  • Bulimia is when someone loses control and has episodes of eating a lot of food in a short period of time (binge eating) and then force themselves to be sick, use laxatives, restrict what they eat or exercise excessively to try and not gain weight.
  • A Binge Eating Disorder is when someone regularly loses control of what their eating. This involves eating large portions/ eating until feeling uncomfortably full then feeling upset or guilty afterwards.
  • EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) is when someone has symptoms of an eating disorder but they don’t exactly match the criteria of any of the above. This doesn’t mean their illness is any less serious though.
  • ARFID (Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder). It is more common among children with ASC and is characterised by:
    • Highly restricted diet; avoidance of certain foods based e.g. upon their colour or texture
    • High anxiety about food and eating accompanied by aversive thoughts –such as fear of choking or being sick
    • Lack of interest in food
    • Loss of weight, failure to thrive and experiencing range of physical consequences of not eating adequate diet.

What causes eating problems?

There is no one single reason why someone develops an eating disorder. A whole range of factors combine, including genetic, psychological, environmental and social influences and interpersonal and relationship difficulties that increase the likelihood that someone develops an eating disorder.

How do I know if someone has an eating disorder?

Signs of an eating disorders can vary depending on the type of eating disorder you have but here are a few things to look out for:

  • Saying they have already eaten/ eaten more than they have
  • Not being truthful about how much weight they’ve lost
  • Counting Calories in food excessively
  • Eating low calorie food
  • Missing Meals
  • Avoiding eating with other people
  • Hiding food
  • Eating very slow
  • Getting food into tiny pieces to make it seem like they have eaten more than they have
  • Excessive exercising
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Comprise of education and employment plans
  • Comparing how they look with others
  • Disappearing soon after eating (in order to purge)
  • Irritability/mood swings

What helps?

Eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness and should always be taken very seriously. However, they are treatable conditions and the sooner someone gets the support and treatment they need the more likely they are to make a full recovery. Making an appointment with your GP is a critical first step, especially if you’ve lost a lot of weight. They’ll be able to help you get specialist help and get on the road to recovery.

How can I help myself/others?

  • Find someone who’s going through a similar experience. Having someone to relate to will help you or others open up about what your feeling/experiencing and may reduce any anxiety around getting help.
  • Try not to judge yourself or others
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself or others to change their eating habits or put weight on. Professional support will most likely be needed to do this.
  • People may not be able recognise or want to admit that they have a problem with eating. The important thing is to listen and give them the time and space to talk about things they are struggling with. It might help to ask what they’re going through or if there are things they are worried about.
  • Try to chat about general things or compliment your friend on their personality and avoid talking about their appearance or weight.
  • It can be helpful to keep including them, inviting them out and encouraging them to do things you both enjoy, or spending time at home of they aren’t up to going out. If you they turn down your invitations, remember this is probably part of the illness and let them know you will still be there for them when they do want to talk or hang out. Just knowing you are there can be a great support.

You could also contact the B-eat Youthline, Kooth or Childline for confidential support, B-eat is a national charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders.

If you are really concerned about someone or they have lost a lot of weight then tell an adult you trust, eating disorders can be very serious and sometimes we need to break trust/confidentiality in order to protect people from harm, and it’s important to get some support for yourself.

See B-EAT UK for more information about spotting the signs of an eating disorder and accessing help.


Who are they?

XenZone is an organisation that provides Face to Face and online mental health services for children, young people and adults. Kooth, from XenZone, is a free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people, accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop.

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

Anxiety, Stress, Identity, Sexuality, Health, Relationships, Eating Disorders (no restriction to this currently).

What services do they provide?

  • Face to Face & Online Counselling
  • Online Mentoring
  • IPT-A Counselling
  • CBT Counselling
  • A range of psychotherapeutic practices and methods (each dependent on the associate)

When are they open?

Their Online services are available Monday-Friday 12pm-10pm and Saturday-Sunday 4pm-10pm.

Their face to face services are arranged between Monday – Friday by the individual and counsellor.


Their Face to Face team arranges visits in schools, local outreach and community venues dependent on the individual they are supporting.

How do I refer?

Via email cornwalloffice@xenzone.com or phone for face to Face support but email is always recommended. You, a family member or professional can make a referral to the service.

For online services you can create an account and log on to the website to access information and support.

Who can be referred?

Children and young people up to the age of 19 (up to the eve of 20th Birthday) experiencing Mental Health difficulties.

Myth buster #1

Myth: Only girls can have eating disorders

Fact: People of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds can develop an eating disorder. In fact 25% of people with eating disorders are male.

Myth buster #2

Myth: Eating disorders are just a phase young people will grow out of.

Fact: Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses that are unlikely to get better without specialist treatment. Eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness and should be taken very seriously. However it is possible to make a full recovery with the right support and many people go on to full and happy lives.

Myth buster #3

Myth: Eating disorders are caused by seeing skinny, unrealistic and glamorous pictures of celebrities and fashion models online in the media.

Fact: All young people are exposed to these images and most do not develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex and there is no one direct cause.

Useful resources


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Need help now?

If you need to speak to someone urgently call your GP or family doctor!


NHS 24/7 helpline : 0800 038 5300
Childline up to 19 yrs: 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123
In an emergency go to A&E or call 999