What is an eating disorder?

By NEDC Australia     |    Updated: 28th April, 2017    |    4 min read

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses; they are not a lifestyle choice or a diet gone ‘too far.’

Eating disorders are associated with significant physical complications and increased mortality. The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses, and over 12 times higher than that for people without eating disorders.

Eating disorders occur in both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and from all cultural backgrounds. About one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder and the rate in the Australian population is increasing.

There are four eating disorders that are recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which are Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED), Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa.

Eating disorders defy classification solely as mental illnesses as they not only involve considerable psychological impairment and distress, but they are also associated with major wide-ranging and serious medical complications, which can affect every major organ in the body.

Approximately 15% of Australian women experience an eating disorder during their lifetime.

Many people who have eating disorders also present with depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders or substance abuse problems.

Signs and Symptoms

Due to the nature of an eating disorder many of the characteristic behaviours may be concealed. A person with an eating disorder may go to great lengths to hide, disguise or deny their behaviour, or do not recognise that there is anything wrong.

A person with an eating disorder may have disturbed eating behaviours coupled with extreme concerns about weight, shape, eating and body image.

Find out more about the warning signs

Onset and Duration

While adolescence represents a peak period of onset, eating disorders can occur in people of all ages.

Regardless of the age of a person at the time their eating disorder begins, there can often be a considerable period of time between onset and the time of first treatment. Furthermore, the person may see a number of health professionals before receiving a correct diagnosis. This delay is likely to negatively influence the duration of the eating disorder and the outcomes of treatment.

Evidence shows that early diagnosis and intervention can greatly reduce the duration and severity of an eating disorder. It is therefore vital to seek professional help at the earliest possible time.

Find out more about risk factors and protective factors

Eating disorders and other mental health issues

A person with an eating disorder will often be diagnosed with another mental health problem. Dual diagnosis or co-morbidity refers to the presence of one or more diseases or disorders in one individual.

There is a high level of co-morbidity of psychiatric illnesses with eating disorders. Eating disorders are most commonly accompanied by depression and anxiety disorders; however, substance abuse and personality disorders are prevalent in people with eating disorders. In fact, research suggests that approximately 60% of people with an eating disorder will also meet diagnosis for one of these other psychological disorders.

Download the Beyond Blue fact sheet: Eating Disorders, Depression and Anxiety

Recovery is possible

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life threatening mental and physical illnesses, however with appropriate treatment and a high level of personal commitment, recovery from an eating disorder is achievable.

Evidence shows that the sooner you start treatment for an eating disorder, the shorter the recovery process will be. Seeking help at the first warning sign is much more effective than waiting until the illness is in full swing. If you suspect that you or someone you know has an eating disorder it is important to seek help immediately.

Find help in your local area.

Get Help.

The National Support Line and Web Counselling Service provides free, confidential support for anyone.

phone now national support line  Phone 1800 33 4673.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Also check the related topics:  

Eating Disorders

Factsheet provided by NEDC Australia


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