The Most Common Eating Disorders in the UK

Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterised by an unhealthy relationship with food and eating habits. These disorders are serious and can be life-threatening if not addressed properly. In the UK, the prevalence and types of eating disorders have been a growing concern. This article will outline the most common types of eating disorders in the UK and provide an overview of their potential impact on the population.

  1. Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Individuals with this disorder often see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. They typically restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat, which leads to a significantly lower body weight. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition, primarily due to the medical complications associated with starvation and the risk of suicide.

The most effective treatment for Anorexia Nervosa is typically a multidisciplinary approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder. This comprehensive treatment plan often includes medical care, nutritional counseling, and therapy. Medical care is crucial to address any immediate health concerns and restore weight gradually and safely. Nutritional counseling helps individuals develop a healthier relationship with food and learn balanced eating habits. Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is effective in addressing the underlying psychological issues associated with anorexia, such as distorted body image and fear of weight gain.

Family-based therapy (FBT) is also highly regarded, especially for adolescents, as it involves family members in the treatment process to support the patient’s recovery. In some cases, medications may be prescribed to treat co-occurring mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. However, there is no specific medication for anorexia itself. Early intervention improves the likelihood of recovery, and ongoing support is essential for long-term management of the disorder.

  1. Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa involves periods of binge eating followed by purging, which may include vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives. People with bulimia often feel a lack of control during their binge-eating episodes. These episodes are typically followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and intense fear of weight gain, leading to purging behaviors. Bulimia can cause serious health issues, such as gastrointestinal problems, severe dehydration, and heart complications.

Similar to Anorexia Nervosa, the most used treatments for those suffering from Bulimia Nervosa involve a combination of psychotherapy, nutritional education, and, in some cases, medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the gold standard in psychotherapy for bulimia. CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors related to eating, body image, and self-esteem. It also involves developing coping strategies for managing triggers for binge-purge cycles.

Nutritional counseling is also essential to help individuals establish regular, healthy eating patterns and to break the cycle of bingeing and purging. In terms of medication, antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been found to be effective in reducing the frequency of binge-purge cycles and improving mood. The integration of these approaches, tailored to the individual’s needs, offers the best chance for recovery from bulimia nervosa.

  1. Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder in the UK. It’s characterised by regular episodes of binge eating without the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia. Individuals with BED often consume large amounts of food in a short period while feeling a loss of control over their eating. This disorder is often associated with obesity and its related health conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

  1. Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED is a category that includes eating disorders that do not meet the exact criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or BED. It encompasses a range of disorders such as atypical anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa (of low frequency and/or limited duration), binge-eating disorder (of low frequency and/or limited duration), purging disorder, and night eating syndrome. Despite not fitting into the more well-known categories, these disorders can be just as severe.

Prevalence of Eating Disorders in the UK

The exact number of people suffering from eating disorders in the UK is challenging to determine due to underreporting and the secretive nature of these illnesses. However, it’s estimated that over 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Among these, anorexia and bulimia are more common in females, whereas BED is more evenly distributed between genders. Eating disorders are most commonly seen in adolescents and young adults, but they can affect people of all ages.


Eating disorders in the UK represent a significant public health issue. They are complex conditions influenced by a variety of factors, including genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social. Recognising the signs and symptoms of these disorders is crucial for early intervention and treatment. It’s important for individuals suffering from these conditions to seek professional help as accessing the right eating disorder treatment in a timely manner can lead to recovery and prevent serious and life-limiting health complications.