Eating disorders: Important things to know

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Eating disorders are common conditions many young people across Canada experience. If you think you may be living with an eating disorder, Kids Help Phone wants to let you know we’re here for you and recovery is possible. Here, you can read important information about eating disorders, including different types, health effects and more.

People often think that eating disorders are about food or a person’s weight or appearance. In actual fact, eating disorders aren’t about food. They’re more connected to how a person feels about themselves and things that are going on in their life.

Here are some things to know about eating disorders:

  • they’re common among young people
  • people experiencing them can be all shapes and sizes
  • they don’t discriminate based on gender, age, class, physical ability, race or ethnic background
  • misunderstanding and stigma around them can make it harder to reach out for help
  • people with eating disorders need and deserve kindness and support from others
  • it’s not your fault if you experience an eating disorder
  • help is available

What are some common types of eating disorders?

There are many different types of eating disorders. We want to let you know that only a psychologist, psychiatrist or doctor can make a diagnosis related to an eating disorder. However, learning more about them may help you better understand what you may be experiencing. Here are some of the characteristics of a few of the most common types:

Anorexia nervosa (or just anorexia)

People living with anorexia often lose a significant amount of weight by controlling their food intake in a strict way. They may have very specific rules around food and exercise, and can have a distorted body image. They may see themselves as heavier, even if they’re considered underweight for their age and height by health-care professionals. No matter how thin they get or how many pounds they lose, they may never feel like it’s enough. People living with anorexia are also intensely afraid of gaining weight.

Bulimia nervosa (or just bulimia)

People living with bulimia often binge on large amounts of food and then purge (or get rid of the food). They may do this by throwing up, taking laxatives, excessively exercising or restricting what they eat. People living with bulimia often feel out of control when eating and may feel ashamed and guilty after eating.

Binge-eating disorder

People living with binge-eating disorder eat large amounts of food in a relatively short time. Unlike people experiencing bulimia, they don’t purge it. People living with binge-eating disorder may feel out of control during a binge that may result in feelings of shame and guilt afterward.

Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

People living with Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) tend to limit the amount and/or types of food they eat. ARFID differs from anorexia in that someone experiencing this disorder doesn’t usually feel distress about their body shape, body size or weight. People living with ARFID may avoid foods with certain textures or colours. They may also have experienced trauma related to food (such as becoming physically ill after eating), which may result in a fear of eating.

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)

People living with Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) may have disordered eating habits that don’t match the descriptions of the eating disorders listed above, or that look different. This doesn’t mean OSFED is less serious — it can still have harmful effects on someone’s health.

You can learn more about these disorders by exploring Types of Eating Disorders on the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) website.

What are the health effects of eating disorders?

Eating disorders can have short- and long-term effects on a person’s health. Some of the effects of restricting food, bingeing, purging and/or excessive exercise include:

  • blackouts or fainting spells
  • weakness or fatigue
  • low body temperature or feeling cold all of the time
  • stomach pain or ongoing troubles with digestion
  • irregular heart rate
  • tooth pain or other dental issues
  • low red blood count and/or a lack of important nutrients
  • thinning hair
  • fine hair on the face or back

In addition to physical effects, eating disorders can negatively impact the way you feel about yourself. They may also influence your relationships with family and friends. For example, an eating disorder might make you want to spend more time alone and withdraw from your family and friends (especially around mealtimes).

Why do people develop eating disorders?

Current research indicates that eating disorders don’t have one single cause. Their development may be influenced by:

  • biology (genetics)
  • psychology (emotions)
  • cultural norms and beliefs
  • and more

There are a number of things that can make young people more likely to develop an eating disorder, including:

Dieting

An eating disorder might seem like a diet at first. What may seem like a small weight-loss goal can turn into excessive dieting and an obsession with losing more and more weight. The way we talk about weight loss and how it’s portrayed in mainstream media and advertisements can lead to people valuing weight, shape and size over health and well-being.

Self-esteem

People experiencing low self-esteem may dislike who they are and feel like they aren’t good enough. Losing weight may seem like a way for them to feel better about themselves.

Body image

Body image is how you feel about your body. When people are feeling negative about their body image, they may focus too much on changing their body by controlling their eating, weight and physical activity. A negative body image can also make it easier for someone to believe the messages they see in popular culture (e.g. social media, TV and music videos) about how bodies should look.

A difficult experience

A sudden or difficult experience such as losing a close friend, having a family member with a serious illness, starting at a new school or experiencing abuse/assault can make someone more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Other challenges

Some people may develop an eating disorder in response to challenges in their daily lives. Things such as family issues, body changes during puberty, social pressures and school stress can all contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

If you think you might have an eating disorder, you don’t have to navigate it alone. You can talk to a safe adult such as a doctor, teacher, Kids Help Phone counsellor or crisis responder.


Kids Help Phone would like to thank the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) for their contributions to this article. You can learn more about NEDIC and browse their resources here.

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