EATING DISORDERS: Help for parents whose children have anorexia or bulimia


It is the time of year when most of us tend to overindulge, Christmas can mean lots of partying, lavish meals, chocolate, tukey by the plateful.

It is a time of celebration and joy, but not for all...

Over 725,000 men and women in the UK are affected by eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious mental health condition. Although anyone can develop an eating disorder, young women are most likely to suffer particularly in their teenage years.



It is important to remember that boys get eating disorders too – up to 10 per cent of young people with eating disorders are male. Although serious, eating disorders can be treated and recovery is possible. Eating disorders impact every area of life – physical, emotional and social, young people’s development is seriously affected and the impact on families is significant. The sooner people receive treatment the better chance they have of recovery and preventing the long term impact on their lives.

Dr Pippa Hugo, child and adolescent psychiatrist and lead eating disorder consultant at Priory Hospital in Roehampton here provides advice for parents who may be concerned their child has an eating disorder. She said: “If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, you might be scared to mention anything, worried you will make it worse. However, the sooner you talk with them about it, the better. Once they accept they have a problem the faster and the more likely it is that your child will be able to make a full recovery. Recovery involves not just getting physically better but also regaining a healthy attitude towards eating and improving confidence and self esteem.”

There are two main types of eating disorders that commonly affect young people, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. There are also ‘atypical’ eating disorders.

Dr Hugo continued: “Teenagers live in a world dominated by appearance so become more self conscious around this time of life. Adolescence, with its many challenges, often provides the trigger for dieting which can lead to the development of an eating disorder. Causes can vary but include school changes, family problems, peer pressure and bullying. Establishing an open discussion about how to cope with anxieties and difficulties will be an important first step.”


Hannah Loughnane

“I kept it all to myself because I thought it was just a phase, but it continued to progress. I made myself sick the first time in the summer holidays, just because I felt guilty for eating a packet of crisps. It continued on and off for a few weeks, and then I got gradually worse to a point where I would weigh myself literally after every single mouthful of food. If I hadn’t gained anything I would go back and eat more. When I hit the point where the scales would go up by one pound, (which now sounds ridiculous) I would use that as justification to make myself sick. All I saw in the mirror was a fat girl (looking back on photos, I was definitely nowhere near fat). The food I was eating wasn’t particularly unhealthy, but in my mind if it wasn’t fruit or vegetables - it was bad.”

Natalie Steven

“My parents didn’t notice for a while. They could see that I was losing weight but didn’t realise how. I would make a bowl of Weetabix in the morning with very little milk, mush it up together, and spoon most of it into the bin. I would then smear the rest of it around the bowl and leave it, so when my mum saw the bowl in the kitchen it looked as if I had eaten.”

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder which focuses on starving the body, often causing the individual to become dangerously thin. It is associated with extreme food restriction and a real fear of gaining weight, together with inaccurate self body image. Anorexia affects both genders, but is most common amongst young women between the ages of 14 and 25.

Common symptoms


Significant weight loss (or failure to grow as expected in children)

Behavioural symptoms include limiting food and drink consumption and excessive exercise

Psychological symptoms include preoccupation with food and weight, disturbance in body image with a fear of being at a normal weight

Can be associated with depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidal thoughts

Physically may develop significant complications e.g. slow heart rate, low blood pressure, constipation


Infertility and loss of menstrual periodsPriory - Eating Disorders - Cry For Help

Brittle bones (osteoporosis)

Extreme fatigue and exhaustion due to starvation

Chemical changes in the brain, making rational decisions and concentration difficult

Social withdrawal and impairment in all aspects of development

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by binge-eating, often eating three or four times a normal amount. This is followed by dietary restriction, self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives to try and avoid putting on weight. Anyone can suffer from bulimia, but it is most common in young women aged between 15 and 25.

Bulimia is commonly associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness and emotional distress.

Common symptoms:


Behavioural symptoms include binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives after meals

Psychological symptoms include preoccupation with food and weight, judging self in terms of appearance, an overwhelming feeling of guilt after binge-eating

Can be associated with depression


Problems with vital internal organs due to lack of essential minerals

Gastrointestinal complicationsPriory - Eating disorders - Scales

Damage to tooth enamel

A painful throat and damaged vocal chords

Swollen cheeks

An atypical eating disorder is very similar to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but does not meet the exact diagnostic measures of either eating disorder.

For more details on the full range of Priory Services, please call 0800 280 8256, or Click here

B-eat is a helpful charity providing information, support groups and resources for people suffering with eating disorders and their families. Visit