What is an eating disorder?


You’re not alone.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses.

They are not a lifestyle choice or a ‘phase’.

They can be incredibly isolating illnesses, so it’s important to recognise the courage it takes to reach out for support.

There are many different types of eating disorders, and each person’s experience will be unique to them and their personal history.

As such, treatment should respond to the individual needs of each person – there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach at Orri.

Woman sitting down thinking
Two women talking

There is no one single cause

An eating disorder is typically borne of a combination of social, genetic and psychological factors. Many professionals consider them to be a ‘maladaptive’ coping mechanism: something that developed in order to support someone to cope, but to the detriment of their mental and physical health.

Negative life experiences – for instance, a traumatic experience – can play a role in the development of an eating disorder.

The trauma may lead to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and stress, and the eating disorder serves a purpose to reduce those levels of anxiety and stress in the short-term, by distracting attention and focusing it upon food, body image concerns, and other rigid, ritualistic behaviours.

Eating disorders serve a purpose

In this light, we can understand the protective intent behind an eating disorder and respond with compassion and respect for how someone has tried to keep themselves going day-to-day.

Gaining insight into how the eating disorder developed can bring a greater awareness to certain behaviours and thoughts, and create a space within which we can choose recovery.

Two women talking

Common symptoms

There’s no ‘one way’ to have an eating disorder, but here are some commonalities that can help with diagnosis

Isolating yourself from others

Preoccupation with food and eating

Low confidence, low self-esteem and anxiety – particularly when eating in front of others

Fear of gaining weight or pursuit of thinness and excessive focus on body weight

Distorted perception of body shape or weight

Inability to eat intuitively or reluctance to respond to hunger cues

Other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder

sam and joann talking in a therapy room for blog

They are family illnesses

We see eating disorders as ‘family illnesses’ because the eating disorder doesn’t impact one person in isolation.

We provide support for the whole family, meaning that no one is left alone in their experience of an eating disorder.

There are many types of eating disorder diagnoses


Anorexia typically involves restrictive eating; where someone limits their food intake to a dangerous and often life-threatening degree.

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Often, people suffering with Bulimia eat large quantities of food – called “binging” – and then purge the calories from their system.

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Binge Eating Disorder

Often, people suffering with Binge Eating Disorder eat large quantities of food – called “bingeing” – but typically don’t engage in compensatory behaviours such as with Bulimia.

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Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Previously coined “Selective Eating”, ARFID involves limitations and/or restrictions around food, particularly around the intake of certain types of food or certain amounts.

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Orthorexia is an eating disorder that is characterised by symptoms of obsessive behaviour towards food, often in pursuit of a “healthy” diet.

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Anorexia Athletica

Anorexia Athletica is a sub-type of the eating disorder, Anorexia. It references a compulsive obsession with exercise alongside symptoms related to restricting food intake and, often, maintaining a low weight with regimented eating.

The diagnosis was first used in the 1980s but has only recently come into common vernacular and is sometimes referred to as “compulsive exercise”, “hypergymnasia” or “sports anorexia”.

People with Anorexia Athletica have a tendency to focus on athletic performance and measure their self-worth against other people’s performance and body types. That being said, there are often complex emotional underlying causes that force an individual to look outside of themselves to cope.

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Diabulimia is an eating disorder that affects people who live with Type 1 diabetes. It is when someone reduces or stops taking their insulin in an effort to lose weight. It can severely impact someones physical and mental health.


OSFED stands for “other specified feeding or eating disorder”. This diagnosis is an umbrella term for an experience of an eating disorder that doesn’t fit the typical symptoms of another specified eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

If you don’t see your experience listed here, that is ok.

We recognise that not everyone will ‘tick all the boxes’, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve specialist support.

Despite how they appear, eating disorders are not about food.

Rather, food is a symptom of more complex and often deep-rooted issues. It’s important to recognise that there is no right or wrong way to have “a problem”.

Because of this diversity, Orri’s approach to treating eating disorders adapts in line with the needs of the individual. Our stepped approach provides people with the right amount of support at different points in their journey and allows for a smooth transition back to into everyday life.

fabian and isobel talking in a corridor wearing black clothes

Only 6% of people with eating disorders are underweight.

Hearts Minds Genes, 2020

What we know

Anyone, of any age, gender or background can suffer from an eating disorder. They do not discriminate, yet unhelpful stereotypes can cause many people’s illnesses to go unnoticed.

Individuals with eating disorders can be incredibly high-functioning despite their illness, often maintaining a full-time job whilst secretly struggling.

How we understand eating disorders

Together, we work with our clients to understand the eating disorder, heal the underlying cause of the eating disorder, and find alternative means of coping.

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