Eating disorders are complex and potentially life threatening mental health problems. Typically when we think about eating disorders, we think of someone who is very underweight and is restricting the amount of food he or she eats. However, there are different types of eating disorders, and many different types of ‘disordered eating behaviours’ such as restricting food, overeating, purging, or over-exercising.

No matter what type of eating disorder someone has, the underlying feelings will be similar – they will be using the destructive and disordered eating behaviours as a way of coping with extreme underlying emotional and psychological distress. In this way, an eating disorder can be thought of as a coping mechanism. It is used as a way to feel he or she can get through the day and manage feelings.

Do I have an eating disorder?

There are 3 main eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. Visit the Bodywhys website for information on recognising an eating disorder and for information on the options for help and recovery.

Typical eating disorder patterns include:

  • Self-starvation: by fasting and/or food restriction

  • Purging: by self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, or laxative abuse

  • Bingeing: by consuming quantities of food beyond what the body needs to satisfy hunger

  • Weight loss or frequent changes in weight

  • Continuing with a diet having already reached their target weight

  • Low self-image and showing a marked over-concern with body shape, weight and size

  • Becoming obsessed and preoccupied by food (for example, preparing food they will not eat themselves)

  • Making comments about their body size being abnormal when it is not

  • Suffering visible deterioration in the condition of their teeth which can result from self-induced vomiting

  • Regularly leaving the table as soon as they have eaten

  • Feeling depressed and isolated

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Withdrawal from social interaction and a marked change in personality

Signs of an eating disorder:

  • Weight loss or frequent changes in weight

  • Continuing with a diet having already reached their target weight

  • Low self-image and showing a marked over-concern with body shape, weight and size

  • Becoming obsessed and preoccupied by food (for example, preparing food they will not eat themselves)

  • Making comments about their body size being abnormal when it is not

  • Suffering visible deterioration in the condition of their teeth which can result from self-induced vomiting

  • Regularly leaving the table as soon as they have eaten

  • Feeling depressed and isolated

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Withdrawal from social interaction and a marked change in personality

People with an eating disorder can and do recover

The first step to changing is for the person to acknowledge at some level that they have a problem and that what they are doing is being destructive to themselves. This is difficult because this acknowledgment also means that they are committing to trying to let go of the eating disorder which feels frightening because the person may not know how to cope without it. Patience and support are vital for this process to move forward.

When thinking about support, it is important to recognise that everyone experiences mental health problems in a unique way and therefore help, treatment and support also varies from person to person. What works for one person may not for another. It is useful to think about what you feel will help you, and not to feel you are beyond help if a certain type of treatment doesn’t work out.

All treatment needs to focus on the different aspects that are involved when a person has an eating disorder – physical, behavioural, emotional and psychological. Recovery involves change in all these areas, and as such is not always a linear process. There will be improvements and lapses along the way, for example a person’s weight may not change quickly, yet they may be challenging their thoughts and behaviours in ways that may not be visible to those around them. Patience and understanding are therefore crucial for recovery to take its course.

Support for eating disorders:

  • G.P.
    Talking to a G.P. is a good first step in receiving treatment and referral to appropriate supports.

  • Phone, online and face to face support
    Bodywhys is the national eating disorder association of Ireland. They provide a variety of supports for people affected by eating disorders (people themselves, family, friends, teachers, health professionals).
    Helpline: 1890 200 444
    Email support: alex@bodywhys.ie
    Online support groups, and face to face support groups in Dublin, Carlow and Sligo. See www.bodywhys.ie for more information.

  • Search for services
    Bodywhys also provide a service directory listing qualified and accredited psychotherapists and counsellors as well as treatment programmes available in Ireland.