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Understanding Eating Disorders: A Comprehensive Guide

According to the Butterfly Foundation, only 25% of people with an eating disorder will seek treatment. This statistic is particularly alarming, given that in any year, at least one million Australians are experiencing an eating disorder - the psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate. Understanding the signs, causes, and treatment options is crucial for providing support and promoting recovery. In this guide, we'll explore the various aspects of eating disorders, including common signs, risk factors, treatment options, and prevention strategies.

Understanding Different Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders encompass a range of conditions, each with its own set of symptoms and characteristics:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by extreme food restriction, weight suppression, fear of gaining weight, and distorted body image. Can also involve bingeing and purging, which tends to be overlooked.

  • Bulimia Nervosa: Involves episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviours such as vomiting or excessive exercise.

  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Involves recurring episodes of consuming large amounts of food accompanied by feelings of loss of control, but without purging behaviours.

  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED): Includes disordered eating patterns that do not meet the criteria for specific eating disorders, but may overlap with others’ diagnostic criteria.

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Involves restrictive eating or avoidance of certain foods due to sensory issues, fear, or disinterest.

(Source: National Eating Disorders Collaboration - NEDC)

Source: Kids Helpline

Risk Factors and Causes

There is no one cause of an eating disorder; rather, it is thought of as a combination of biological and environmental factors. A common saying for the cause of an eating disorder is “biology loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger”. Factors that make someone more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder include:

  • Genetic and Biological Factors: Family history of eating disorders, imbalances in brain chemicals, or hormonal irregularities.

  • Psychological Factors: Perfectionism, low self-esteem, trauma, or coping with stress through food.

  • Sociocultural Influences: Pressure to conform to societal ideals of beauty, media portrayal of thinness, or cultural attitudes toward food and body image.

  • Environmental Triggers: Childhood experiences, societal pressure, bullying, or critical comments about weight or appearance.

  • Co-occurring Disorders: Eating disorders often coexist with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

(Source: National Eating Disorders Collaboration - NEDC)

Recognizing Eating Disorders: Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the signs of an eating disorder is the first step toward getting help for yourself or a loved one. Common signs include:

  • Significant Changes in Weight: Rapid weight loss or gain without a clear medical reason.

  • Obsession with Food or Dieting: Constantly talking about food, calories, or strict dieting rules.

  • Body Image Concerns: Negative body image, frequent body checking, or expressing extreme dissatisfaction with one's appearance.

  • Eating Rituals or Behaviours: Hiding food, avoiding social gatherings involving food, or exhibiting secretive eating habits.

  • Physical Symptoms: Fatigue, dizziness, fainting, hair loss, dental issues, and gastrointestinal problems.

  • Emotional Changes: Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, or withdrawal from social activities.

Source: Butterfly Foundation

Treatment Options

Seeking professional help is essential for the effective treatment of eating disorders. Treatment options may include:

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders (CBT-E), Maudsley Family Based Treatment (FBT), and more which can be found here.

  • Medical Monitoring: Regular medical check-ups, nutritional counselling, and monitoring of physical health.

  • Support Groups: Peer support groups or online communities can provide valuable support and shared experiences.

  • Inpatient or Residential Treatment: Intensive treatment in a specialized facility for severe cases or when outpatient treatment is insufficient.

(Source: The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists - RANZCP)

Prevention & Early Intervention

Research suggest that early intervention breeds the most positive outcomes in eating disorder treatment (FREED, 2024). Prevention strategies are emerging as extremely promising too, including:

  • Body Neutrality: Focus on individual strengths, talents, and achievements rather than appearance.

  • Intuitive Eating: Emphasize the importance of intuitive eating rather than prescribing to a rigid diet.

  • Challenge Diet Culture: Critically evaluate media messages and cultural norms that promote unrealistic beauty standards.

  • Foster Emotional Resilience: Teach coping skills and healthy ways to express emotions.

  • Promote Help-Seeking: Encourage individuals to seek support from trusted sources when struggling with body image or eating concerns.

(Source: National Eating Disorders Collaboration - NEDC)

Source: Bravehearts

Family and Social Support:

Family and social support play a crucial role in the recovery journey of individuals with eating disorders. The lived experience community has identified these strategies as being helpful from their loved ones:

  • Emotional Encouragement: Offer words of encouragement and validation to your loved one, emphasizing their strength and resilience.

  • Practical Assistance: Assist with meal preparation, grocery shopping, and accompanying your loved one to medical appointments.

  • Open Communication: Foster open and non-judgmental communication channels, allowing your loved one to express their feelings and concerns freely.

  • Educate Yourself: Take the initiative to learn about eating disorders, treatment options, and how best to support your loved one.

  • Seek Professional Help: Encourage your loved one to seek professional support from qualified mental health professionals specializing in eating disorders.

By understanding the signs, causes, and treatment options for eating disorders, individuals can take proactive steps toward recovery and healing. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, seek help from a qualified mental health professional or contact a local support organization for assistance.


●       The Butterfly Foundation (

●       Eating Disorders Queensland (

●       National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) (

●       Inside Out Institute (

●       Lifeline: 13 11 14 (24/7)

●       Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7)


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