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Staff Counselling Centre


Eating Disorders

You may be reading this information because you think you have an eating disorder, or because you are concerned about a family member, friend or colleague. Whatever your reason, help and support are available, and recovery is possible.

Eating disorders are complex, frequently misunderstood, potentially very serious and often shrouded in shame and guilt. They can affect any of us, and importantly, they are less about food and more about dealing with difficult feelings and situations and struggling to feel in control.  For some, the pandemic is an additional pressure. One of the crucial tools in addressing and overcoming eating disorders is compassion – including self-compassion.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is when an individual does not follow normal eating behaviour. For example, they may restrict the amount or type (or both) of food that they eat, or they may over-eat, or binge eat.

A disorder may also be characterised by controlling weight, such as self-induced vomiting, or purging by using laxatives or diuretics or excessive exercise. Individuals with an eating disorder may have a preoccupation or obsession with their body weight, their shape and their eating. They may have an unrealistic self-image or be over-critical of their body (dysmorphia), for example, believing they are overweight when they are not.

Although there are three main categories of eating disorder, it is common to have some but not all features of any one of them, or elements of more than one. The behaviours of eating disorders can lead to a range of problems with physical health and mental health (and eating disorders themselves may be the result or manifestation of psychological problems, for example, poor self-esteem). it is therefore always advisable to seek help and support as early as possible to aid recovery.

Categories of Eating Disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is where individuals, often extremely afraid of weight gain, seek to keep their weight as low as possible.  The resulting unhealthily low weight is the consequence of restricting eating, avoiding eating at all for long periods of time, over-exercising, or a combination of all of these behaviours, and by deliberately inducing vomiting or using laxatives.

Medical complications include headaches, amenorrhea (cessation of periods), loss of libido, osteoporosis, brittle hair and nails, anaemia, constipation, low blood pressure, and malnutrition.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is characterised by bingeing and purging, losing control of eating, so eating a lot in a short period of time, and then deliberately vomiting or using laxatives. Bingeing may be followed by restricting food and/or excessive exercise in order to prevent weight gain.  Bulimia can be more difficult to detect than anorexia, as the person with it may remain within a normal weight range.

Medical complications include an inflamed or sore throat, tooth decay from repeated vomiting, swollen salivary glands in the neck and cheeks leading to a puffy appearance, acid reflux disorder, intestinal problems from regular laxative use, kidney disorder from use of diuretics, and dehydration.

Binge Eating Disorder

Individuals with binge eating disorder are often serial dieters with a history of weight problems.  They will, according to the NHS, experience a sense of loss of control over their eating and so quickly consume large amounts of food two or more times a week often in reaction to emotional states.  Binge eating is often associated with shame, leading to secretive eating, and guilt after bingeing.

Medical complications include obesity, heart disease, hypertension and high blood pressure.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

This term covers eating disorders that do not fit exactly into any of the above categories.

Please, do seek help even if you are unsure if you have an eating disorder, or your symptoms do not exactly match any category as this is very common.


Might I have an eating disorder?

How healthily is my relationship with food? Look out for any of these signs:

  • I worry a lot about my weight and body shape
  • I avoid socialising if I think that food will be involved
  • I eat very little food
  • I make myself sick or take laxatives after eating
  • I have a rigid routine around food
  • I use excuses not to join mealtimes
  • I feel down
  • I over-exercise
  • I feel cold, tired, light-headed
  • My digestion doesn’t feel right
  • My weight is really low/high for my height
  • My periods have stopped


What about my friend/relative/colleague?

Signs to watch out for include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Lies around how much has been eaten and when
  • Secret stashes of food
  • Change to eating alone/avoiding communal eating (perhaps claims that they have already eaten that you suspect are not true)
  • Eating a lot quickly
  • Visits to the toilet after eating, possibly looking flushed
  • Excessively/obsessively exercising
  • Cutting food into small pieces, seeming to eat very slowly, taking tiny servings
  • Wearing clothes that disguise weight loss


But what causes Eating Disorders?

The exact causes are not known.  However, risk factors include:

  • A family member with a history of an eating disorder/depression or alcohol or drug addiction
  • Having been criticised or shamed for your eating habits/body shape or weight
  • Having been part of a family/community where food is used as a reward for certain behaviour or withheld as a punishment
  • Professional pressure to be underweight, e.g., dancers/models and athletes
  • Low self-esteem, anxiety, obsessive personality, perfectionism
  • You have been sexually abused (or subject to other abuse)
  • Belief that other issues will be resolved – e.g. I will be happy/find a partner/be popular “when I reach my target weight”


Help and Support

Please contact your GP if you think you have an eating disorder.  It may help you to enlist the help of a trusted family member or friend. If you are worried about somebody else, it will be helpful to approach a conversation with them in terms of your concern for them in a calm and caring manner.  You may anyway experience a defensive response as they might already feel ashamed.  Try not to be put off by this. Perhaps show them this leaflet.

GP: Often a first step to asking for help and discussing your issues confidentially including possible referral and treatment options


Sources and further information:


Information, support and helplines:



For help in seeking a self-referral:


And for help in supporting someone else:


For help, information and stories of recovery:



Cambridge University Staff Counselling Centre

If you would like to talk to someone in confidence about an eating disorder, or any other issue troubling you, you can access up to ten sessions of one-to-one counselling at the University Staff Counselling Centre.  This service is delivered by our team of qualified and highly experienced therapists specialising in a range of modalities. You can self-refer online from our secure website or seek a referral from HR or Occupational Health.  Counselling can be helpful in exploring any underlying issues that may be relevant, as well as fostering self-care and accessing appropriate support.


The Service is free, completely non-judgemental and confidential.


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