More than food: What are Eating Disorders?

Next week is eating disorders awareness week. Eating disorders are a mental health illness that can impact anyone and have been on the rise since lockdown. In this article Iona discusses what eating disorders actually are, how they stem much deeper than being about food, and some pointers of where help can be accessed if you feel you or someone around you may be struggling with their eating.

By Iona Craig.

Next week is Eating Disorders awareness week. The prevalence of eating disorders has significantly increased since lockdown. Stereotypes suggest eating disorders are a mental health illness experienced by teenage girls, however although there are high eating disorder rates within this population, they can affect anyone. Eating disorders are commonly found within a university setting and as many people may have mealtimes alone, they can often go unnoticed until the eating disorder has developed drastically. Due to the impact eating disorders can have on an individual’s life, it is essential support is accessed as soon as possible.

Eating disorders are not vanity; they are not a choice and they are not about food. Fundamentally they are a coping mechanism. Often people turn to eating disorder behaviours when they feel out of control or fearful about an element of their life and use food (unconsciously) as a way to feel in control. For example, when applying to university, a student may feel out of control of their future as they wait for responses to their application. As there is no way to control the outcome at this point, they may control what they eat to help cope with the uncomfortable anxieties associated with waiting. It can be a way to distract the mind and offer immediate but short-lasting relief. Up front this will appear as if it is all about weight, calories and food however underneath there is much more to it.

An aerial view of a table with various plates of food on it. There are also glasses, mugs and some cutlery, and a hang is reaching across the table from the left-hand side.
Image: Pixabay.

There are a number of eating disorders recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistics manual (DSM) with the most prevalent being anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. A more recently recognised eating disorder by the DSM is known as avoidant  restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and it differs slightly to the others mentioned as it is about the food – individuals with ARFID are overly sensitive to textures, smells and tastes meaning they find many foods highly unpleasant to consume so often have a very limited palette. Individuals with anorexia nervosa in contrast also often have a very limited pallet but due to anxieties around eating certain foods rather than the properties of the foods. Anorexia nervosa is identified by restriction of amount/types of food and over-exercising leading to extreme weight loss and a fear of weight gain. Bulimia nervosa on the other hand includes binging foods followed by purging in a cyclical manner. Binge eating disorder only includes the binging element of bulimia nervosa. Guilt after eating is common in all of these.

Eating disorders can present in a number of different ways and as such many individuals fall under the diagnosis of other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). In other cases where symptoms are present but in a less consuming manner, individuals are known as experiencing disordered eating. Individuals with disordered eating patterns are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

A girl with brown hair wearing a purple top eating some food, with a fork lifter up to her mouth.
Image: Andrea Piacquadio.

Eating disorders can have many negative mental and physical consequences including anxiety, depression, headaches, electrolyte imbalances, fertility problems and even in severe cases mortality. It is really important to seek help early on if possible as empirical evidence continues to find that the earlier intervention takes place, the better the outcome. This is not to say recovery isn’t possible further down the line, there are just more ingrained thinking patterns to address meaning it can take much longer and relapse rates are higher.

Seeking help can be really difficult, especially as eating disorders often come with high levels of guilt and secrecy making disclosing eating difficulties very difficult. However, sharing eating disorder or disordered eating thoughts and behaviours with others is the first step in recovery and often one of the hardest. There are a number of people who can offer help outside of friends and family. A first point of call, especially if a number of physical symptoms are being experienced should be the GP. Following this, there are a number of eating disorder charities that offer online and in person resources and support with the most local one to the university being tastelife based in Kenilworth.

Eating disorders can be a very consuming and isolating mental illness with many individuals reporting not feeling ‘sick enough’ to receive help. Especially whilst at university when the future can feel uncertain and there are lots of big life changes and decisions being made it is really important to access the available support if you are concerned. These resources are here to help and recovery is very doable even if it doesn’t initially feel like it!

IF you’d like to read more blogs about supporting your mental health, take a look at ‘The future: What happens next?’ and ‘balancing work life and social life at university’.

Are you looking after your mental health at the moment? Let us know by tweeting us @warwicklibrary, messaging us on Instagram @warwicklibrary, or by emailing us at

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