What is an eating disorder?

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Find out about different types of eating disorders, signs and symptoms and what to do if you think you have an eating disorder.

Key points

  • An eating disorder affects a person both physically and mentally.
  • Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of body shape, size, weight, age, sex, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.
  • Some general signs of an eating disorder include significant weight loss or gain, weakness, fatigue, and an increased focus on health or clean eating and exercise.
  • If you think you have an eating disorder, you should tell someone you trust such as a parent or teacher and get help as soon as possible.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious condition that affects a person both physically and mentally. Having an eating disorder is not a choice that someone makes. Early recognition and timely intervention are important as all eating disorders are treatable and it’s possible to make a full recovery.

Some of the most common eating disorders are:

Can eating disorders affect anyone?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of body shape, size, weight, age, sex, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. A person with an eating disorder may not look extremely thin or underweight; in fact, many people with an eating disorder are not extremely thin.

What are the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder?

The signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can be different from person to person, depending on several factors including the type of eating disorder they have. Some general signs and symptoms include:

  • significant weight loss, gain or changes
  • unable to tolerate cold, including general chilliness, cold hands and feet and/or hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • weakness
  • fatigue or less energy than usual
  • dizziness (presyncope)
  • fainting (syncope)
  • greater focus on "healthy" or "clean" eating
  • increased focus on exercise, including intense exercise or exercising multiple times a day
  • using the bathroom after meals to purge (throw up)

For more specific signs and symptoms, please see the pages on anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, ARFID and binge eating disorder.

What should I do if I think I have an eating disorder?

Tell someone. Tell a trusted adult such as a parent, caregiver, teacher, coach or therapist. Explain your concerns and ask for their help.

Don’t feel alone. It can be hard to tell someone about your eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. You might be concerned about how they will react. However, it can help to have an open and honest conversation about your eating disorder with those you trust. It will help you feel less alone.

Get help early. It is important for you to see your health-care provider as soon as possible. Your health-care provider can help to determine whether you have an eating disorder and can also assess how serious the situation is. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the quicker you can start treatment, and the better chance for recovery.

If you think someone you know might have symptoms of an eating disorder, you can try talking to them about it. However, some people with an eating disorder may not acknowledge that they have an eating disorder. If you’re not comfortable talking to them or if they don’t want your help, you can talk to an adult you trust such as a parent/caregiver, teacher, guidance counsellor, or your health-care provider. It’s important to offer your support in whatever way they need but try not to be judgemental or offer them any advice about food or weight.

Eating disorder treatment can take a long time. It will include managing and treating any physical symptoms or complications, normalizing eating behaviour, addressing nutritional concerns, and psychological treatment.

Last updated: March 13th 2023