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Eating disorders

Worries about weight, shape and appearance are very common among young people. Eating problems aren’t just about food. They can be a way of coping with difficult feelings, which are hard to talk about. Eating disorders commonly start in adolescence and can cause serious long-term emotional and physical health problems.

We all go through times when we find it hard to eat or stop eating because we’re feeling stressed or unhappy. This is normal. Sometimes though, this carries on for a longer period of time and begins to have a serious impact.

The most common types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Other Specific Feeding/Eating Disorder: This can have features of one of the above but does not always meet all the criteria of an official diagnosis, including:
    • Purging Disorder (recurrent purging but without binge eating)
    • Night Eating Syndrome (recurrent night eating, waking in the night to eat, excessive eating after evening meal)

Eating disorders rarely get better on their own and can have a negative impact on home and school life. Although serious, eating disorders are treatable and full recovery is possible. The sooner someone gets the support they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery.

Spotting the first signs of an eating disorder is extremely important in encouraging your child or young person to get the help and support they need as quickly as possible.

Possible signs of anorexia

Anorexia nervosa means means restricting your eating habits because you feel overweight, despite being very low in weight. Signs could be:

  • Losing lots of weight or being underweight
  • Saying that they feel fat
  • Acting panicky about eating in front or others or having a big meal
  • Exercising excessively
  • Missing meals or restricting food intake, calorie counting and cutting out whole food groups
  • Feeling dizzy and tired
  • Feeling cold
  • Periods stopping
  • Being unable to have an erection
  • Having a low mood, low self-esteem and being irritable
  • Withdrawing from friends and relationships or previously enjoyed activities
  • Being obsessed with body image.

Possible signs of bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is when someone eats large amounts of food in a short space of time and then tries to get rid of it quickly by vomiting, taking laxatives, misusing diet pills or excessive exercise. You may notice the young person:

  • Thinking or talking obsessively about weight
  • Hating their body
  • Being scared of being found out or feeling ashamed
  • Binging, then making themselves sick - you may notice them going to the toilet after meals
  • Exercising excessively
  • Poor sleep and concentration
  • Feeling out of control, feeling low or withdrawing from others and losing interest in things
  • Staying the same weight
  • Dehydration, poor skin and irregular periods
  • Sore throat and bad teeth (from vomiting)
  • Swollen glands, constipation and stomach cramps.

Possible signs of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is when someone eats large amounts of food in a short space of time and feels out of control. You may notice:

  • Consuming very large amounts of food over a short period of time (bingeing)
  • Eating when not hungry or until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Hiding how much they are eating
  • Trying to diet, but finding it hard to stick to
  • Eating for comfort when feeling stressed, upset or unhappy
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed
  • Feeling low and unhappy about their body
  • Putting on weight
  • High blood pressure, joint and muscle pain
  • Feeling sick
  • Experiencing sugar highs and crashes
  • Breathlessness

Not everyone with eating difficulties fits these criteria. One thing to watch out for is to what extent your child or young person’s eating disorder is affecting their lives.

See the SCOFF Questionnaire in the Helpful resources section below: it's a really simple 5 question tool to help non-professionals to assess the possible presence of an eating disorder.

Visit NHS website for more information about eating disorder symptoms

Your child or young person might feel ashamed, embarrassed or scared to talk about what’s happening. Speak to your child or young person if you’re concerned about them. (It’s OK to get it wrong.) Be curious, ask questions but don’t focus on food and weight. Stay calm, be accepting and non-judgmental.

Just remember, living with an eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. 

You can also help by encouraging them to:

  • Talk to someone (friend, teacher, other adult) they trust
  • Go and see their GP and talk about their worries.

If you’re concerned, please contact Berkshire Eating Disorders Service for advice.

If you’re worried someone you care about is showing the signs of an eating disorder, it's really important that you try to talk to them and encourage them to seek help from their GP.

Please see our Berkshire Eating Disorders service information page for more information about the support that we offer, and how to make a referral to get help from our service.