Eating disorders: when food becomes a problem

People primarily associate eating disorders with anorexia but other forms also exist, such as bulimia (binge-purge syndrome) and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious conditions that require medical treatment.

At a glance

  • Eating disorders do not always result in people being underweight; they can also be severely overweight or have a normal weight.
  • For people with eating disorders, everyday life is strongly shaped and influenced by this single topic.
  • The reasons for eating disorders can be personal, family-related or social in nature. A person’s natural disposition can also play a role.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Eating disorder: underweight woman standing on scales with her back to a full-size mirror.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious conditions that require medical treatment. They primarily disrupt the way people eat and their relationship with their own body. This can result in them becoming underweight or overweight to an extent that is harmful to their health.

Eating disorders should always be taken seriously, as they can have long-term consequences for a person’s health.

There are several types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia (binge-purge syndrome) and binge-eating disorder. A combination of the above is also very common. Each of these conditions can and should be treated. The sooner they are diagnosed, the greater the chances of successful treatment and a return to healthy eating behavior.

The diverse causes of eating disorders

Eating disorders have many different causes and can be triggered by a mixture of mutually influencing factors. This means that eating disorders can be caused by personal, family-related, biological and social factors.  

Young people in particular are strongly focused on the distorted images of beauty and the body that adverts, newspapers and the television convey through the diets, health trends, photos and lifestyles of stars and successful bloggers. This can lead to them constantly focusing on food, their weight and their figure. If other factors also come into play, an eating disorder can be triggered.

Eating disorders often develop slowly

Many people gradually develop an eating disorder without even noticing. If they constantly compare themselves to others, this can compound the situation. A distorted self-image can gradually emerge – together with the excessive urge to obtain a “perfect” figure or have the ideal diet. In many cases, people with eating disorders also exercise a great deal so as to compensate for even the smallest of “sins”. At the same time, their self-confidence suffers and the topics of food and body weight become increasingly important. Little room remains for anything else. 

The eating habits increasingly trigger health problems: being extremely underweight can lead to muscle loss, osteoporosis or infertility. Being overweight and obesity (adiposity) increase the risk of conditions like heart and cardiovascular diseases or joint and back problems. However, they can also cause mental disorders such as anxiety or depression – which can conversely also lead to an eating disorder.

Important: An eating disorder is not a harmless “phase” that will just pass. Eating disorders are severe mental illnesses that require professional treatment. 

Help and therapy

People with eating disorders often find it hard to recognize the illness as such and get help. Appropriate medical and psychotherapeutic treatment is therefore all the more important but should not be enforced.

It is usually difficult for people to cope with an eating disorder on their own. So medical as well as psychological support is needed in many cases.

People with eating disorders who are looking for help and their relatives can consult their general practitioner, for example.

Professional advice centers such as the anonymous telephone helpline provided by the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) can also help people with eating disorders find a suitable treatment option.
To the telephone hotline

Depending on the type and severity of the eating disorder, treatment can be provided in an outpatient capacity or in a hospital. The aim is to restore healthy eating habits. Psychotherapeutic treatment is an important and central part of this.

How relatives can help:

  • Listen and show understanding – this can already relieve some strain off the person affected.
  • Take action without pressure: do not reprimand, apportion blame, make threats or set mandatory rules. Start with little steps.
  • Gently address worries and concerns without focusing on the person’s body weight and eating habits.
  • Break the taboo and talk openly and clearly about the topic.
  • Try to overcome fear and obstacles together by offering support and guidance and helping the person improve their self-confidence.

Further information and advice on eating disorders can be found on the website of the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) (in German).

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