An eating disorder is a mental health problem that causes someone to negatively change the way they eat.

People with eating disorders often feel they’re too fat or that their life would be better if they lost weight, and so they engage in dangerous behaviours with food – such as skipping meals, or only eating very limited types of food. But not all eating disorders are about body image. They can also be related to a person’s emotional or pyschological issues, such as dealing with stress, grief or wanting to feel more in control of their life.

Lots of people change their diets or start doing more exercise in order to be healthier – and there’s nothing wrong with eating vegetables or going for a run a couple of times a week, if it makes you feel good. But when that behaviour becomes obsessive, more serious problems can occur.

If having a slice of cake can ruin your day, or you avoid going to your friend’s house for dinner because you’re not sure what food will be there, this could be a sign of disordered eating and it’s a good idea to have a chat to your GP.

What types of eating disorders are there?

There are a range of eating disorders that have different symptoms and behaviours.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is when a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible, usually through extremely restricted eating and/or excessive exercise. Side effects can include hair loss, fatigue, dizziness, weakening of the bones, missing periods and growing downy hair on the arms or neck.

Bulimia

Bulimia is when a person binges on food and then makes themselves deliberately sick, or uses laxatives to try and control their weight. Bulimia has a lot of the same side effects as anorexia, as well as rotting teeth (from stomach acid) and blurring vision.

Binge eating disorder (BED)

Similarly to bulimia, BED is when a person feels compelled to eat large amounts of foods in a short space of time. They don’t usually make themselves sick or use laxatives, but they might eat less than normal or try to follow a strict diet in between binges.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (ENDOS)

This is a sort of catch-all term to describe disordered eating behaviours that don’t fit into one of the categories above – but still have the power to make you pretty unhealthy and miserable.

TL;DR? Here's the important stuff:
  • Eating disorders are mental illnesses that cause someone to negatively change their eating behaviour, often in order to lose weight.
  • There are four main types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified.
  • There is no one thing that causes eating disorders, they are generally a combination of loads of different environmental and biological factors.
  • There are loads of treatment options available. Recovery can be a long process, but with the right help, people with eating disorders can make a full recovery.

What causes eating disorders?

There’s no one thing that causes eating disorders. Some people like to blame supermodels or magazines for giving us unrealistic standards of beauty and body image – but while they almost certainly don’t help, the reality is that it’s much more complicated than that. The causes of eating disorders are different for each person.

There are also environmental and social factors that can trigger eating disorders, such as being criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight, but there are also biological factors that can contribute to eating disorders, such as having a family history of eating disorders or depression.

People with perfectionist tendencies, obsessive personalities or anxiety are also more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

How do we treat eating disorders?

Thankfully, there are loads of treatment options available for people with eating disorders. However recovery can be a long and bumpy process, so the support of friends and family is really important. If an eating disorder isn’t treated, it can have a severely negative impact on a person’s life – and in some cases, it can be fatal.

The treatment options involve both trying to improve a person’s physical health, and also helping them work through underlying mental issues.

Common treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which focuses on altering how someone thinks about a situation, and medication such as antidepressants. However, there are loads of other types of therapy available to suit different people and situations.

I think I might have an eating disorder

If you’re worried that you might have an eating disorder, it’s a good idea to talk to your parents, your GP, a teacher or another adult you trust. You can also head over to the NHS website and answer their questionnaire (under ‘Do I have an eating disorder?’) – if you answer ‘yes’ to two or more of their five questions, you should definitely have a chat with your doctor.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to feel this way forever. Help and support is out there to get you through this.

Image: Getty

I was fifteen when I was diagnosed with anorexia.

I had never kissed a boy, or a girl for that matter. I had never had a pint of beer or driven a car. Yet, somehow, I had decided to fight against the most basic of human instincts: that you eat to survive.

Anorexia is a difficult illness to explain because even when I was firmly in its suffocating grasp, I was aware that I was sick. Not in a hand-on-your-forehead, take-a-paracetamol, have-a-good-night’s-sleep sort of way. But sick in a Saturday-morning-weigh-ins, every-meal-dissolving-into-a-fight, missing-entire-weeks-of-school sort of way. In fact, I was the type of sick that would come to define the next few years of my life.

The only way I can attempt to explain my anorexia is to say I felt that I was both too much, and not enough. I was too loud and too enthusiastic. And also, not smart enough or pretty enough. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life, and that frightened me.

All I knew was that I wanted to be perfect.

I felt like people had expectations of me – some real and some totally imagined – and I felt I could never meet them all. Somewhere along the way, I got confused. I forgot that my happiness was more important to anyone than the grades I got or the way I looked. Instead, I began hating myself for not being the Lily I thought people wanted me to be and so I took it out on my body. I wanted to shrink everything until I became invisible.

It wasn’t even so much about being thin – it was about what being thin represented. To me, being thin showed that I was the type of person that exercised, the type of person who ate salad, the type of person that always submitted her homework on time, and always made the honours classes. Somehow thin, to me, had come to mean clean and disciplined and healthy.

But of course, I wasn’t healthy at all. I was starving myself, I was depressed and I was falling behind at school because I no longer had the energy to raise my hand in class, to do my homework, to keep my eyes open while the teacher explained the fall of the Roman Empire (to do this day, I still don’t really know what went down back then).

The thinner I became, the more I hated myself. I pushed my friends and family away, convinced they couldn’t love a creature as awful as me. I felt like I’d trapped myself in a nightmare that I had quickly lost any control over and I was really, really scared.

Of course, I knew something was wrong. My family had tried to talk to me. My teachers had pulled me aside after class. My friends had asked if I was okay. I knew that all the things that were happening to my body were not the signs of a healthy 15-year-old, but part of me thought it would be arrogant to ask for help, to assume that this thing, whatever it was, was a serious mental illness. That a doctor would take one look at me and laugh and say, “What are you talking about? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.”

It wasn’t until I read a book about anorexia that I was able to finally able to ask for the help that I so desperately needed.

One night, I emerged from my room, crying. My mum was watching TV and I curled up next to her, ‘Mum,’ I said quietly, ‘I think there’s something wrong with me.’

I know those are the exact words I said because they are seared into my brain. After I uttered those words, my life took on a different trajectory.

There were years of therapy. And then some more therapy. There were anti-depressants. And then more anti-depressants.

There were screaming matches with my mum, who believed that my life should amount to more than knowing the calorie content of every food in the supermarket.

There were some appointments where both my parents, one of my brothers and his wife would turn up to support me and we had to nick some chairs from the room next door – because how many people are lucky enough to have four people who will turn up to what is, quite frankly, a long and harrowing doctors appointment?

There was a teacher who let me sit with him and talk about US politics when I wasn’t up to going to class. There were my friends who kept turning up, no matter how awfully I treated them, which is pretty much all I ever needed them to do.

None of these people needed me to be perfect; they just needed me to get well. And so I did.

Even so, it took years of therapy before I became even a shadow of my former self. Years before I accepted my personality and stopped confusing my weight and my self-worth, as if they were almost the same thing.

My desire to be perfect nearly ruined my entire life because I am so massively imperfect (so much so that I just had to ask a colleague if it was imperfect or unperfect). I am consistently seven minutes late. I knock over my water bottle at least once a day and every time my editor bursts out laughing. I get really obsessed with crafting projects and then abandon them three quarters of the way through.

And all that is fine, because it’s who I am. The most important thing I learnt from those years? That the moment you let go of trying to be perfect and you learn to forgive yourself for all the ways in which you screw up, you get to be happy.

Image: Hailey Hamilton