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Eating disorders

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An eating disorder is a complex mental illness characterised by disturbed eating behaviours, distorted beliefs, and extreme concerns about food, eating and body size, shape or weight.

Eating disorders can be associated with major medical complications which can affect every organ in the body. They are not a lifestyle choice or about vanity. No one would choose to have an eating disorder.


  • Anyone can develop an eating disorder, including all ages, genders, cultures and backgrounds.
  • Eating disorders affect about 9% of the population, but eating disorders are frequently under-reported, so the actual number is likely to be higher. This means that over 1 million Australians experience an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders can occur in everyone from children to the elderly.
  • There can be serious complications associated with an eating disorder. They include; increased risk of death, complications with other medical conditions and increased risk of obesity.
  • The causes of eating disorders are complex, but a combination of genetics, psychological factors and cultural influences are thought to affect the likelihood that someone will develop an eating disorder.


A person with an eating disorder may have disturbed eating patterns or behaviours, and extreme concerns over the size, shape or weight of their body. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to:

  • obsessive thoughts about food, body size, shape or weight or eating patterns
  • rapid weight loss or gain or frequent changes in weight
  • feeling depressed, anxious, irritable or stressed
  • eating food in smaller or larger amounts than is considered normal
  • using food as a way to deal with boredom or stress
  • using food as a way to manage uncomfortable or distressing emotions
  • using food and eating as form of self-punishment
  • eating in private or avoiding social situations involving food
  • secretive behavior around food
  • compensating for food consumed
  • excessive exercising.

Due to the nature of an eating disorder, a person may go to great lengths to hide or disguise their behavior and may experience intense feelings of guilt or shame.

Related: Busting five myths regarding eating disorders and mental illness; Reducing stigma; Discussing eating disorders on the SANE Forums

"I’d isolated myself from everyone around me and limited my relationships to basic communication. I didn’t want people to see me eat or distract me from my study. As the weight dropped, I lost the ability to function physically and mentally, and I couldn’t see a future." - Rachael

Types of eating disorders

There are several broad categories of eating disorders. A large number of people have other eating issues and distorted body image which are not covered by these diagnoses, but still have a significant impact on their mental health and quality of life.

Binge eating disorder 

A person with binge eating disorder may eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. They will often feel ‘out of control’ about their eating and may not be able to stop. People with binge eating disorder often feel guilty or ashamed at the amount of food they eat during a binge eating episode.

Bulimia nervosa

People with bulimia may eat large amounts of food, then purge the food as a way to control their weight. They may do this through vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise or misusing laxatives or other drugs. People with bulimia will often go to great lengths to hide their eating and exercise habits. Many people with bulimia do not lose weight but may experience weight fluctuations.

Anorexia nervosa

A person with anorexia nervosa may place severe restrictions on the amount and type of food they consume. They may have difficulty expressing emotions that feel too complex, and struggle with self-worth. This can lead to a low body weight and severe health issues. They may lose a large amount of weight in a short amount of time, and may fear gaining weight.

Other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)

Some people may present with many of the symptoms of other eating disorders, but will not meet the full criteria for that diagnosis. In these cases, the disorder may be classified as OSFED. This is not a less serious disorder than other eating disorders. All eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that cause significant emotional and physical distress.

For further information, the NECD provides informative fact sheets on eating disorders. 

It is important to remember that you cannot tell that a person has an eating disorder by their body weight. Eating disorders affect people of all shapes and sizes.

Related: Self-help for self-harming behaviour; Finding hope when fighting an eating disorder

Help for people with eating disorders

With specialised treatment, recovery from an eating disorder is possible. The earlier someone with an eating disorder begins treatment, the greater thelikelihood of a shorter recovery process and better the health outcomes. It is important to remember recovery is a unique journey for each person. Individuals may share common, yet different experiences, goals and outcomes.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, it is important to seek help immediately. The Butterfly Foundation National Helpline (1800 334 673) is a good place to start. They can provide a referral to someone with specialised knowledge in eating disorders.

Treatment may need to involve a number of different health professionals, for example, GPs, psychologists, dietitians and other allied health professionals. This is because best treatment will take into consideration the mental, physical, emotional, behavioural and environmental needs of the person with the eating disorder.

Treatment for eating disorders can include hospital stays, intensive outpatient programs, community programs, support groups and counselling.

It’s important to remember that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with potentially life-threatening consequences. Therefore, it is crucial to seek help immediately.

For more information contact the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Related: Guide for families, friends and carersWhat I wish I knew when I became a carer

Further information

The Butterfly Foundation is a national organisation representing people affected by eating disorders and negative body image, and their family and friends. They offer phone support, factsheets, treatment and recovery programs and training.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration is an initiative of the Federal Government, and brings together people and organisations with an expertise in eating disorders.

This factsheet has been produced in partnership with the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Health. 

Content last reviewed: 7 December, 2017

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