What causes an eating disorder?

There is no single cause as to why a young person would develop an eating disorder. An eating disorder often develops gradually as a response to an upset in someone’s life.

This could be a traumatic event, a loss or major change in a person’s life, bullying, an overload of stress, and/or critical comments about weight or shape.

Sometimes, it’s not obvious what the trigger may have been.

Eating disorders do not start out as a conscious choice and are not a wilful form of “attention seeking”.

For the person affected, the eating disorder can seem like a good way of coping and it can take hold very quickly.

Classifications of eating disorder

Anorexia nervosa – people with anorexia have an intense desire for weight loss and to be thin (often unhealthily so). Although people with anorexia are usually underweight, they generally believe that they are “fat'”. Food, weight, and appearance often become the main focus for someone who has anorexia.

Bulimia nervosa – people experiencing bulimia go on regular eating binges, which involves consuming large amounts of food in relatively short periods of time (e.g. within 2 hours) whilst accompanied by feelings of being out of control of one’s food intake.

The binge eating is usually followed by feelings of guilt and anxiety about becoming fat, and this results in a desire to avoid weight gain. To avoid gaining weight the person may make themselves vomit, use large quantities of laxatives or other medications, fast or exercise.

Binge eating disorder – most of us overeat every now and again. However, regularly consuming large amounts of food when you are not feeling hungry, usually to the point of feeling overly full, and at a much faster rate than usual, is known as binge eating disorder.

Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia and the signs are similar except that the person does not get rid of the food after eating.

Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) – many people with eating disorders don’t fit strictly into one category but may fluctuate between the three. EDNOS is the term applied to a wide range of disorders that do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

This could be someone who, for instance, matches most criteria for anorexia nervosa, but has not lost as much weight as is required for a formal diagnosis. It is estimated that as many as 50% of those affected by eating disorders fit into this grey area of diagnosis.

The behaviours associated with EDNOS, and the potential impact of those behaviours, are as serious as with any other eating disorder and should be treated as such.

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