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Princess Margaret Hospital

What is an Eating Disorder? - Eating Disorder Program

There are many different eating problems, and eating disorders affect many people. The two most common types are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Eating disorders most commonly present during the adolescent and young adult years.

There is no single cause for eating disorders, and every person has a different history that includes genetic, personality and environmental and socio-cultural factors.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life threatening mental illness. People who have anorexia nervosa might restrict the amount and types of food they eat, compensate for eating by unhelpful behaviours such as vomiting or use excessive exercise in order to reduce their weight or achieve a particular shape. These behaviours are not a lifestyle choice, are not about attention seeking or something that young people do and will grow out of, but are symptoms of a serious problem, which can cause severe medical complications and have a massive impact on the person’s social and physical functioning. Especially in the early stages, people with Anorexia Nervosa might deny that they have a problem.

Diagnostically, people with Anorexia Nervosa will have experienced significant weight loss, be extremely fearful of weight gain despite being significantly underweight, and have distorted ideas on the way they see themselves.

What is Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a serious mental illness which can cause severe medical complications that are not necessarily obvious. People with Bulimia nervosa will experience episodes of binge eating, which means they eat an abnormally large amount of food with a complete loss of control, and then compensate by either vomiting, using laxatives or other drugs, or by exercising or fasting.

Bulimia Nervosa may often go un-noticed as people often are of normal body weight, and secretive about their behaviours.

Recovering from Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa

Recovery can take a long time, and sometimes people don’t want any treatment despite being very unwell as symptoms are experienced as a coping strategy to deal with deeper lying issues.The person usually experiences different stages, both in their eating disorder and their perspective on change and recovery. Often young people in the early stages of treatment may not realise the significance of the medical problem. Over time understanding of the eating disorder grows and the young person and the family develop coping strategies. Families do not cause eating disorders, but they are instrumental in helping a young person recover.

Symptoms can switch from restricting to overeating and therefore diagnosis can change over time. These changes in symptoms are often part of the recovery phase, as are the emergence of emotional symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Other Mental Health Issues

About fifty percent of people who have an eating disorder also have other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder.

For more detailed information, please visit the NEDC (National Eating Disorders Collaboration) website.

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