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Eating disorders & Disordered Eating

Eating disorders are complicated, and are not just about food. Eating or not eating in a certain way, helps some cope with feelings that may be difficult to deal with directly.

Disordered eating refers to troublesome eating behaviours, such as restrictive dieting, binging, or purging, which occur less frequently or are less severe than those required to meet the full criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Both conditions are cause for concern. Early help for symptoms has been proven to lessen the impacts of disordered eating, as well as prevent symptoms from meeting a diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders involve changes, and at times, extreme changes in eating behavior. This can mean eating too much, not eating enough or eating in a really unhealthy way (such as binge eating).

Eating disorders can start small but can become more extreme and more harmful over time. Knowing the facts can help you to figure out if a problem exists, or if small changes in your eating habits might become a larger problem in time.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are both a mental and physical health concern, as severe weight loss often leads to other physical and emotional complications.

The two most well-known eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.

Living with anorexia can be very challenging. Without treatment, anorexia can become life-threatening, since limiting your nutrition long-term can have very serious health issues.

Living with bulimia can mean serious digestive disorders and other physical illnesses over time. People with bulimia also typically suffer from depression and guilt over the bingeing and purging associated with this disorder.

Those diagnosed with an eating disorder may often deny that a problem exists and may think or feel that ‘nothing is wrong.’ Sometimes, denial can mean that accessing help for the person with symptoms of an eating disorder is difficult. However, people with eating disorders can and do recover and there is treatment available for those who need it.

Important to note
Some people may not have a diagnosed eating disorder, but their eating behaviours may affect their well-being and affect their health. Signs of “disordered eating” should be taken seriously, and early help for concerns is recommended It’s also very important not to make assumptions about symptoms or behaviours based on someone’s body size. People who have eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.

Don’t underestimate an eating disorder simply because of someone’s body size or shape. Eating disorders affect people of all genders and all ages.

Dieting is the number one contributing factor to the development of an eating disorder. While not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, almost every eating disorder begins with a diet that was intended to lose weight.

Recovering from Eating Disorders

With help from a health professional and support from family and friends, eating disorders are treatable and recovery can be expected. You can think of recovery from eating disorders as part of a personal journey to feel a degree of control over your life, and to have meaningful relationships with people you trust – whether they are family members, friends or people at school or work.

Recovery also means different things to each person. For some, recovery means that no symptoms will persist, while for others, recovery means learning to live a full life despite any ongoing symptoms.

It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, or how long the eating disorder has been part of your life. It can be a difficult journey at times, but supports are available.

Signs of an eating disorder

These symptoms are not necessarily present all the time, and this list should not be used to diagnose yourself or someone else. Many of the behaviours associated with an eating disorder can be dangerous or harmful to your health.

If you think you might be experiencing an eating disorder, you should see your doctor for an accurate assessment and treatment plan. You can also go to Need Help Now?

Thoughts and feelings

  • Thinking often of what you will or will not eat;
  • Feeling anxiety and shame when eating
  • Planning and thinking about when you will be able to exercise;
  • Extreme disappointment when meal or exercise plans are interrupted or don’t happen;
  • Believing that weight loss will help you to become a happier and/or better person;
  • Feeling fat though others disagree
  • Believing that if you were thinner, more people would like you;
  • Feeling worthless or not deserving of food;
  • Denying your hunger and sometimes not eating even when hungry;
  • Feeling better only when you avoided eating;
  • Feeling confused that others say you are too thin, while you disagree or believe the opposite;
  • Thinking of eating as one of the only things you have control over.

Behaviours

  • Eating very little
  • Eliminating certain foods or food groups
  • Having strong feelings about types of food, seeing foods as “good”, “bad” or “unhealthy”
  • Frequently going on diets;
  • Cycles of gaining and losing large amounts of weight
  • Fighting hunger feelings but refusing to eat when you are hungry;
  • Counting calories for everything eaten;
  • Spending a lot of time exercising in order to burn off calories;
  • Being secretive about your eating habits to hide what and/or how little you are actually eating;
  • Being preoccupied with food, dieting, weight and shape
  • Not liking to eat with other people
  • Finding ways to get rid of calories such as using laxatives or vomiting to lessen the anxiety about eating or weight gain
  • Avoiding social situations where eating will be involved or where others might see their body, such as swimming or changing clothes;
  • Having trouble focusing and concentrating at school or work;
  • Arguing with your parents, partner or boy/girlfriend around eating and exercising issues; and
  • Enjoying cooking for others but not eating the food yourself

Mental Health issues associated with eating disorders can include:

  • depressive disorders
  • anxiety disorders
  • alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • obsessive and compulsive symptoms
  • personality disorders In order to be effective, treatment needs to address all mental health concerns.

Getting help

Seek emergency help immediately if you are having suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of harming yourself or others.

You should also seek help right away if you:

  • Have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns
  • Think physical health symptoms such as experiencing injuries from over-exercising or excessive heartburn and/or stomach ache problems could be linked to your eating behaviours
  • Are experiencing prolonged trouble sleeping
  • Feel as though normal life stresses don’t explain your symptoms
  • Feel as though you have no control over your eating behaviours

Talk to someone you trust – a parent, family member, family physician or other health provider – about how you feel. They can help you determine if you need further help to deal with the issue. Medical help and counselling can help you recover from an eating disorder. Medical treatment must be prescribed and monitored by a physician, and recovery often involves a team approach with other mental health workers who may be available to help.