“When I started on a specialist program for eating disorders, I finally felt that someone actually understood what I was experiencing.”
An eating disorder is about much more than food; it is a mental illness. Unhealthy eating behaviours and relentless thoughts about food are symptoms of more complex issues. Your eating behaviours may have developed as a way of dealing with things in your life that feel out of control, or they may be a way of coping with troubling emotions.
Eating in the way your disorder compels you to can make you feel guilty, ashamed, and disgusted. Your hidden feelings about your eating may lead you to deny your behaviours, or hide them from yourself and others.
Having an eating disorder may make you feel like you have lost control of your body and your behaviours, but it may also be a way of feeling control over an aspect of your life. Either way, an eating disorder can become a key part of the way you see yourself.
An eating disorder can take over your life, and it may seem too big to deal with. But it is important to remember that all eating disorders can be treated, and full recovery is possible at every age.
Seeking help is vital. Seeing a GP about your concerns can be a good first step. You may prefer to start by using the telephone and online support services offered through organisations like the Butterfly Foundation. We have resources below to help you get started.
Taking action for change
Learn more about the different types of eating disorder
There are different types of eating disorder - including binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). Each one has specific characteristics and potentially different treatments. Anyone, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity, can develop an eating disorder. (Source)
Psychotherapy can be effective
Psychotherapy can be used to help control and reshape your behaviours, emotions, and patterns of thinking. Sessions are usually run by a psychologist. However, these approaches may also be used by other health professionals including psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and counsellors. (Source)
Nutritional management is an important part of recovery
Nutritional management ensures you are getting enough nourishment and helps you develop healthy eating habits, thoughts, and behaviours. A nutritionist or a dietitian will usually support you in managing your diet and will help you with meal planning. Apps like Recovery Record can be a useful way for you and your treatment team to manage your daily nutrition.
Family approaches are common for younger people
For younger people, early intervention approaches that involve your whole family in understanding the disorder and supporting your recovery have been shown to be most effective. Family approaches can also be effective for adults and bring together family or close friends as part of a support network. (Source)
Developing coping strategies
There is much that you can do yourself to develop coping mechanisms that do not involve eating, and online tools can be useful. For example, evidence-based apps and online programs may help you manage the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Apps can also make meal planning and tracking easy, and are discreet to use in front of other people. You can find out more about coping strategies from the resources below.
Helping someone with an eating disorder
Eating disorders can be quite scary to observe in someone you care about because of the distress of seeing their body change and their self-destructive behaviours. You may not know what to do or say, but your support can make a big difference in their recovery.
Talk to the person openly and honestly, but avoid making any comments about how they look. Even well-meaning comments on their appearance can be taken the wrong way and set back the recovery process. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling and listen without judgement. It is important to remember that nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, and parents are not to blame.
Eating disorders can have serious health consequences, so support the person you know in connecting with a health professional as soon as possible.
Other helpful actions you can take include: learning more about eating disorders from the resources below, encouraging the person to stay connected with family and friends, and engaging them in enjoyable social activities that do not involve food or excessive physical activity.
Find out more about caring for someone with a mental health condition on our carers page.
Eating disorders become so ingrained in your personality that you feel like it’s part of who you are. You forget what it’s like to not have an eating disorder. Because I’d had it since I was 12 years old, I didn’t know who I was without it. So recovery can be the hardest thing that someone ever has to do in their life, but it’s also going to be the most worthwhile. That's a really important message for anyone who's affected.
The twelve-step program has been instrumental in helping me with my eating disorder. Without it I wouldn't be recovered. One great thing is identifying with people who've got the same problem. Having friends and a support network was absolutely critical for me.
Having balance in my life is a really big thing. I’m studying at the moment, but I make sure that I maintain a balance by doing regular social things, exercising regularly, and eating really well. My mental health is my number one priority and that's more important than getting 100% in an exam. If that means I need to take a weekend off from study and do absolutely nothing so I stay happy and healthy, then that's more important.
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).