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Eating disorders - what are they? - info for kids

eating; disorder; dieting; anorexia; nervosa; bulimia; binge; ;


What is normal eating?

To be healthy and be a healthy weight it is important to choose the right balance of healthy foods and be physically active.

Normal eating is not how much or what you eat, but your attitude towards food and eating. When young people feel they can eat without feeling guilty, eat when they feel hungry and can stop when full, they have a positive and normal attitude to food.

It is also normal to eat different amounts on different days, to eat more of the foods you like and less of what you don't like, and to overeat or restrict intake sometimes.

Normal eating is;

  • eating regular meals
  • stopping when you feel full
  • eating more of foods you like
  • eating less of what you don’t like
  • sometimes eating too much of really yummy food
  • sometimes not feeling hungry
  • not eating too much of the ‘sometimes’ foods
  • not feeling guilty about eating
  • not worrying about food all the time. 

If, for example, you run out of the house without breakfast because you slept in and are worried about missing the bus, and at school, you feel hungry and grab a snack and eat a larger lunch than usual without even thinking about it - this is normal eating.

What about dieting?

Many people have 'gone on a diet' to lose weight at some time. Dieting is so common that some people see it as a normal part of eating. Dieting is not the best way to lose weight. It usually leads to weight gain in the longer term and can leave you feeling down and unsuccessful.

For most people dieting doesn't last long and they soon return to 'normal' eating. This kind of dieting is not a problem, but it should not be encouraged. It is better to eat healthily and have regular physical activity for long term healthy weight.

What is an eating disorder?

For some young people new eating patterns are a sign of troubled feelings, and confused thinking about food, eating and how they think they look.

An 'eating disorder' is an illness that leads to strange thinking about food and affects someone’s health and life.

Some eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa – where people believe they are fat, even when they are not and they may have already lost a lot of weight. 
  • Bulimia nervosa –  where people eat very large amounts of food because they have been starving themselves, and then make themselves vomit, take laxatives to make themselves poo to excess or exercise to extreme to get rid of any weight they think they may have put on. 
  • Binge eating – where people have times when they eat very large amounts of food but do not vomit, purge or exercise to 'work it off' so that they do gain weight. 
  • Compulsive overeating – where they are constantly overeating to make themselves feel better. Food is used as a replacement for what is missing.

Eating disorders can have serious physical, emotional and social effects. They can take many years to get through and the person may have to spend time in hospital if they get dangerously thin.

What an eating disorder looks like

Check out the list below. If a person is thinking and doing several of these, it could mean the person has an eating problem.

  • thinking and talking about food and dieting a lot of the time 
  • knowing about the amount of energy (joules) in every type of food 
  • eating very little, although the person may cook elaborate meals for others - or eating very large amounts of food sometimes 
  • going to the toilet often after meals and vomiting 
  • strenuous exercise routine, even exercising when the person is injured or unwell 
  • big weight changes 
  • looking very thin, and still trying to lose weight 
  • their weight going up and down all the time or very large weight gains
  • sudden mood changes, irritability, depression, sadness, anger, and difficulty in expressing feelings 
  • poor concentration and being unusually tired. 
  • intense shame about their body and fear of gaining weight  
  • constantly trying to be thinner
  • wearing really baggy clothes to hide their shape.

Causes of eating disorders

There is no clear cause for eating disorders. This makes it more upsetting for the person, family and friends, as they all try to think about what could have started it and what to do about it. Sometimes families get blamed for a young person having an eating disorder, but often the family can be a very loving family.

More kids from 11 -14 are developing an eating disorder and this may have something to do with them being bombarded with messages about how important it is to be thin, and how bad being overweight is for their health.

  • Maybe they don’t feel good about themselves and are trying to change their body image
  • Maybe some bad things are happening at home, at school or in their social media
  • Maybe they are being ‘sucked in’ by all the media hype about how people should look
  • Maybe they are trying really hard to be successful at school or other aspects of their life and are not able to live up to their hopes
  • Maybe they are finding it hard to settle into a new school, new family or a different culture
  • Maybe someone they love has died or is going through a bad illness
  • Maybe they are being bullied.

Do you know someone who may have a problem with eating?

Check this out:

  • Do they avoid eating meals or snacks with others? 
  • Are they always counting kilojoules and working out how much fat there is in everything that they eat? 
  • Are they always weighing their self and stressing about their weight? 
  • Do they exercise really hard with the goal of losing weight and do they exercise even if they are injured or unwell? 
  • Are they scared about putting on weight? 
  • Do they ever feel 'out of control' when they are eating? 
  • Do they regularly diet then overeat – like a yo-yo? 
  • Do they have set ways of eating, like always having to have some special foods, or do they have to eat different types of foods in a certain order? 
  • Is their day geared around control of food, weight loss and dieting? 
  • Do they feel ashamed, guilty or disgusted with their self after eating? 
  • Do they constantly worry about the weight, size and shape of their body? 
  • Do they feel that no one will care about them or their opinions unless they are a certain size, shape and weight?

If you have answered yes to several of these questions, then their thinking could be too focused on their weight, food and eating. It's time for them to get some help.

Helping someone with an eating disorder

  • Let the person know that you are worried and that you care about them. If they deny that there is a problem, or get upset and not want to talk about it, make sure that they know that you are still their good friend.  
  • Being a friend or family member of someone with an eating disorder can be very difficult at times, particularly if the person denies she or he has an eating problem and will not talk to you openly. Be ready to go slowly. 
  • Someone with an eating disorder needs expert help. You won’t be able to change how they think about eating, so do not hassle them about it.
  • Your friend may find dealing with the eating disorder stressful and have days when she or he is irritable or angry, or very sad.
  • Accept your friend for who he or she is. Do things together that you have enjoyed before. Make comments about reasons why you like having them as a friend. Don't talk about the eating disorder. Be honest with your friend, and by showing your love and care she or he will feel supported and may be able to accept the help that is needed. 
  • If your friend needs to go to hospital, check with his or her family whether you can visit. Having friends visit can help the person feel like a ‘normal’ person.
  • Don't talk about your own weight issues or talk about dieting.
  • Suggest that your friend talks to a trusted adult, such as their parent or teacher, or their doctor.

What Dr Kate and Dr Kim say.

Young people who are going through puberty will often put on some weight before and during a growth spurt. Your body needs this extra weight, so don’t be alarmed.

Eating disorders can lead to a person becoming really sick, and can even cause a person to die.

Boys as well as girls can suffer from eating disorders.

Check out the ‘Related topics’ at the right side of this topic. You may find some of them very useful.

If you, or a friend, are struggling through bad times then talking to trusted adults can help. It may take a while to find the right person who really listens and supports you. Keep trying!

If you want someone else to talk with you could call the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (free call in Australia): 

To find out more about tough times with health, friends and family

For information about eating disorders have a look at the Reachout site. there are many topics such as

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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