Eating disorders are growing more and more prevalent and can affect both physical and mental health, writes Louise McCarthy.

When we hear the phrase ‘eating disorders’, we have a knee-jerk reaction shunting all blame upon the media, the fashion industry and the perceived growing sexualisation of children.

Clearly the much demonised spectre of the media cannot be wholly responsible, and of course there are many who have sermonised about the importance of family mealtimes and parents educating their children on issues of health and self respect. However, I t does seem true that these disorders are a tragic product of our society; anorexia was only first recognised in the late nineteenth century, and has shown a rapid increase since the 1980s.

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life threatening illnesses, and the effects of starvation, in particular, are manifold, such as extreme weight loss, constantly feeling cold, anaemia, headaches, thinning of hair and reduced immune system function, to name just a few. Overeating or binge eating is also a serious health issue, often leading to obesity and the associated risks of diabetes and heart disease.

The statistics reveal that ten million people suffer from an eating disorder and one in 100 teenage girls will develop an eating disorder. Approximately ten per cent of sufferers are male, and this number is growing although the vast majority are young women.

The reasons why so many young people feel the need to binge eat, starve themselves and purge are usually related to deep seated personal problems, such as low self esteem, or depression. Such behaviour is often undertaken, either consciously or subconsciously as an effort to exert control over the sufferer’s emotions and body, a level of control they feel they cannot exert in other aspects of their lives. The anorexia or bulimia can become an important touchstone for self-identification and can fill an emotional void for sufferers and be used as a coping mechanism for times of stress.

“Approximately ten per cent of sufferers are male, and this number is growing”

However the fact remains that eating disorders are a cultural phenomenon. Thinness is most definitely the ideal body shape for a woman in western societies. The tabloid and celebrity media have developed an obsessive preoccupation with thinness, dieting and anorexia. One week they praise a public figure for their rapid weight loss while next week headlines scream, ‘Anorexia Epidemic in Hollywood” with a photo parade of emaciated starlets.

This conflicting, cruel and often misinformed media representation of thinness and dieting is sadly, to be expected, but this hysteria is clearly affecting impressionable young people feeling depressed or vulnerable.

There are many warning signs that can be indicative of an eating disorder such as avoidance of certain foods or food groups such as meat or dairy, secrecy about diet and exercise habits and withdrawal from social activities, especially those involving meals. While anorexia is characterised by low body weight (a Body Mass Index of less than 17.5), sufferers of bulimia often maintain a body weight that is normal, or slightly above or below average weight.

This makes bulimia a less noticeable disorder, although a diagnosis can be reached by observation of the many serious and deeply unpleasant effects of a recurrent self induced vomiting (displayed in 75 per cent of patients), such as a ruptured oesophagus, peptic ulcers and even cardiac arrest causing death.

So who is at risk of developing an eating disorder? Most sufferers are women, and the most common time for someone to develop an eating disorder is during adolescence. Those who suffer from depression or those who suffered abuse during childhood are more at risk, as are those whose career is focused on body shape and thinness, such as models, gymnasts and actors.

For most people, starting university is an exciting new experience, with a certain level of added pressure and stress due to exams, leaving home and making new friends. Some though, can find all their newfound freedom overwhelming and may feel isolated, or lost in the anonymousness of university life. It is possible that starting college can be the beginning of, or lead to the worsening of an eating disorder for some students.

Most young people probably know of someone with an eating disorder, and of course it is vitally important to treat the issue as a serious potentially life threatening disorder, but with sensitivity and respect for the sufferer. Anyone who has, or thinks they have an eating disorder should contact a counselling service, such as Niteline, which students can make use of to discuss any problems they might have in a confidential setting.


  • Body dysmorphic disorder is defined as a psychiatric disorder in which the affected person is excessively concerned about and preoccupied by an imagined or minor defect in their physical features. This can be a cause of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
  • Anorexia nervosa, (referred to as simply anorexia which actually describes the general symptom of loss of appetite) is probably the most well known of eating disorders, and is characterised by self starvation, extreme exercise and vomiting.
  • Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by a cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviours such as vomiting or taking of laxatives.