Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa

The main symptom is the relentless pursuit of thinness through self-starvation. This may become so extreme that it’s life-threatening. It most frequently affects young women, but anorexia is found among both sexes of all ages and across social and ethnic groups.

Some of the signs are:

  • severe weight loss
  • distortions and misconceptions about weight and body size
  • obsession with food and calories
  • preoccupation with self-control
  • excessive exercising
  • isolation, loss of friends
  • emotional, irritable behaviour
  • secret vomiting/purging
  • loss of menstrual periods

Bulimia nervosa

This condition is characterised by overeating followed by self-induced vomiting and sometimes purging with laxatives. It can develop at any age, although it often follows an episode of anorexia. Bulimia can have serious physical consequences in the long term, such as damage to the stomach, tooth enamel and vocal cords. Some of the signs include:

  • binge-eating large amounts of food
  • obsession with food and calories
  • vomiting and purging
  • often disappearing to the lavatory after meals
  • secretive behaviour
  • feeling out of control
  • menstrual disturbances
  • very low self-esteem


It’s still not understood exactly what causes an eating disorder, but the good news is that help is available.

A variety of people treat eating disorders, using different techniques. These include family doctors, psychiatrists, dieticians and, ideally, a multidisciplinary team on a specialised eating disorders unit.

Treatment includes self-help approaches and psychological treatments, especially cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to give people a better understanding of their condition and learn ways to change their behaviour.

“My eating habits have changed dramatically over the past couple of months and I’m starting to get a little worried…”

Getting better is often a long, slow process. For example, 30 per cent of anorexics who have apparently recovered relapse in the first year after treatment and need more therapy. However, up to 75 per cent of those with anorexia nervosa will achieve the aims of treatment after six months to six years. As many as 50 per cent recover completely, while another 30 to 40 per cent manage to lead a normal life.

For an in-depth look at eating disorders, including self-help tips, see the Mental health site.


This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.