Eating problems

What is it?

Many 'eating styles' can help us to stay healthy - but some are driven by an intense fear of becoming fat. These can damage our health and are called eating disorders. The two most common problems are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. We describe them separately here, but the symptoms are often mixed.

Eating disorders are 10 times more common in girls and women. In teenagers, they affect seven in every 1,000 girls, but only one boy in every 1,000.

We do not know what causes them but factors include:

  • Social pressure - western culture and particularly the media idealise being thin
  • Control - losing weight can make us feel good and in control
  • Puberty - anorexia reverses some of the physical changes of becoming an adult
  • Family - saying 'no' to food may be the only way you can express your feelings
  • Depression - binges may start off as a way of coping with unhappiness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Genes may play a part.

How do we know it's happening?

Anorexia nervosa - signs and symptoms

  • Worrying more and more about weight
  • Eating less
  • Exercising more
  • Being unable to stop losing weight, even when below a safe weight
  • Smoking and chewing gum to keep weight down
  • Losing interest in sex.

In women, periods become irregular or stop. In men and boys, erections and wet dreams stop and testicles shrink.

Bulimia nervosa - signs and symptoms

  • Worrying more and more about weight
  • Binge eating
  • Individuals making themselves vomit and/or use laxatives
  • Irrregular periods and feeling guilty about eating pattern, but normal weight remains.

Binge eating disorder

This has recently been recognised and involves dieting and binge eating, but not vomiting. It is distressing, but less harmful than bulimia. Sufferers are more likely to become overweight.

What we offer

Bulimia can be tackled using a self-help manual with guidance from a therapist.

Anorexia usually needs help from a clinic or therapist.

Generally the best advice is:

  • Try to stick to regular mealtimes breakfast, lunch and dinner. If a person's weight is low, they should have extra snacks
  • Keep a diary of what is eaten plus thoughts and feelings. This can be used to see if there are links between how a person feels, thinks and eats
  • Be honest. Remind the individual that they don't always have to be achieving things and they should let themselves off the hook sometimes
  • Join a self-help group
  • Contact our specialist teams which are available throughout the Trust to help anyone overcome these problems


GPs can refer individuals to a specialist counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist.

A physical health check is often wise as an eating disorder may have caused physical problems, or there may be some unrecognised medical condition that has sparked the eating problem.

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