Eating Disorders Explained | Eating Disorders Victoria
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Eating disorders explained

Home ~ Eating disorders A-Z ~ Eating disorders explained

This page provides information on eating disorders. If you are concerned that you or someone you care about may be experiencing an eating disorder, please reach out to the EDV Hub or call 1300 550 236. 

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious mental illness characterised by disturbances to thoughts, behaviours and attitudes to food and eating. For some, this extends to pre-occupation with body weight/shape. 

Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice, a diet gone wrong or a cry for attention. They are mental illnesses recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and can take many different forms. Importantly, you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by the way they look.  

To learn more about specific eating disorders, including signs and symptoms, please visit the pages below: 

Eating disorders are more common than you may think.  

It’s estimated that 1.1 million Australians are experiencing an eating disorder right now, and this number is increasing. Get the latest research and statistics on eating disorders by following the link below.

Research and Statistics

Classifying eating disorders - DSM 5

Eating disorders are usually clinically defined and diagnosed according to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5). 

About the DSM-5 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a publication of the American Psychiatric Association. It is currently in its 5th edition. The DSM contains sets of diagnostic criteria (symptoms being experienced) grouped into categories (disorders) to assist clinicians with the effective diagnoses and care of people with mental health disorders. There are several diagnostic criteria manuals used worldwide, but the DSM is the one used most commonly in Australia. 

The DSM mentions the following categories of eating disorders: 

  • Anorexia nervosa 
  • Bulimia nervosa  
  • Binge eating disorder 
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
  • Pica  
  • Rumination disorder
  • Unspecified feeding and eating disorders (UFED)
  • Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED): 
    • Purging disorder  
    • Night eating syndrome  
    • Atypical anorexia nervosa 
    • Subthreshold bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder 
    • Orthorexia 
Who uses the DSM-5? 

GPs, psychiatrists and mental health professionals will usually use the criteria from the DSM to compare against an individual’s symptoms. This process will help them to decide whether the individual meets the diagnostic criteria for a particular mental health disorder. A diagnosis can help select the treatments with the best evidence for good outcomes associated with the disorder symptoms. 

It is important to note that the DSM is just one tool to help diagnose and treat eating disorders and may not represent the broad spectrum of eating disorder experiences. Dialogue and research are ongoing to help refine diagnostic criteria, improve clinical practice, and ensure that individuals receive appropriate support and treatment for their experiences with eating disorders. 

Learn more about the DSM-5 

Not sure where to start?

The EDV Hub is a free, confidential service that provides information, service system navigation, support and care to thousands of Victorians every year. If you’re not sure where to start, or just want to talk to someone, the EDV Hub is for you.

Contact the EDV Hub

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders do not have a single, identifiable cause. There are biological, psychological and social risk factors that may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing. 

For many people, there will be an overlapping of risk factors that contribute to them developing an eating disorder. We also know that engaging in eating disorder behaviours is often a way to cope with internal or external difficulties, stressors or changes. Addressing these challenges, and developing more healthy coping mechanisms, is often part of the recovery process.

Biological factors 

Emerging evidence shows that the development of an eating disorder may have a biological link relating to a person’s genetics. Studies show that eating disorders such as anorexia nervosabulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder have moderate-high heritability. Ongoing research into this field is analyzing hundreds of genes that may influence the chance of developing an eating disorder with the hope of improving treatment and even preventing illness. You can learn more about the Eating Disorders Genetic Initiative (EDGI), the world’s largest ever genetic investigation of eating disorders, here.  

While genetics are beyond a person’s control, there are steps that can be taken to modify risk, such as addressing psychological, social risk factors and other risk factors. 

Psychological factors 
  • Feelings of inadequacy 
  • Perfectionism 
  • Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, particularly negative emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety or fear 
  • Fear or avoidance of conflict 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Competitiveness 
  • Impulsive or obsessive behaviours 
  • High concern with the opinions of others, often with a need to please 
  • Prone to extremes, such as ‘black and white’ thinking 
  • Difficulty coping with stress 
  • Depression or anxiety 

It is important to note that psychological symptoms can also be present as the result of an eating disorder and the impact of starvation syndrome. Psychological symptoms may resolve with adequate re-nourishing and subsequent recovery. 

Social factors 
  • Cultural value placed on ‘thinness’ or small bodies as a moral and health imperative 
  • Normalisation of intentional dieting and weight loss in pursuit of the ‘thin ideal’ 
  • Valuing of people according to outward appearance 
  • Media and popular culture’s portrayal of ‘ideal’ shapes and bodies 
  • Professions with an emphasis on body shape and size (eg. dancers, models, athletes) 
Other factors 
  • Significant life stages, such as puberty, pregnancy and post-partum and menopause 
  • Life events, particularly those involving major changes (e.g. loss of a family member or friend, the divorce or separation of parents, moving schools or jobs) 
  • Autism, particularly in women 
  • Engaging in dieting
  • Poor body image 
  • Peer pressure 
  • Difficulties with personal or family relationships 
  • Sexual or physical abuse 
  • Food insecurity 
  • Unmet needs (emotional, psychological, social, professional, spiritual, physical or pleasure) 
  • History of teasing or bullying, particularly when based on weight or shape 

Recovery from eating disorders

Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible for everyone, even those who have experienced symptoms for many years.

At EDV, we understand that recovery from an eating disorder is an individual and unique process. How someone defines and experiences recovery is often inclusive of their life stage, intersectional life experiences, priorities, responsibilities, support systems, and access to services. 

The first step towards recovery is to talk about what you are experiencing. This may start with a health professional, a helpline, a trusted family member or friend, a teacher, a coach, or a spiritual leader. If you find that the person you speak to doesn’t validate your feelings, or have much knowledge about eating disorders, it’s important not to ignore your symptoms. We encourage you to reach out to Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) for a conversation, which can include next steps for receiving treatment.  

You can read more about recovering from an eating disorder here.  

Accessing treatment 

There are a range of evidence-based treatments available for eating disorders. Accessing treatment requires navigating different parts of the health care system. Treatment options are available in both the public and private health system. We understand this can be confusing and encourage you to reach out if you have any questions.  

For most people, treatment will start with a visit to a GP. A GP is normally a central point of contact during treatment and recovery, and can provide diagnosis, medical monitoring and referral to specialist services.  

We encourage you to learn more about accessing treatment by visiting the following pages:   


Carol's story - putting binge eating behind me

"The binge itself, followed by the preoccupation with shame, guilt and planning the next diet, managed to distract me from avoiding my uncomfortable emotions for about 15 years. I was stunned at how obvious it all was!”

Read Carol's story

Recovery support at EDV

Find out how EDV can help guide and support your recovery: 

  • EDV Hub – helpline service providing information, navigation and general support. Open Mon – Fri, 9.30am – 4.30pm. 
  • Telehealth Counselling – up to five, free 30–45-minute sessions with a trained counsellor to help you take the next step in your recovery.  
  • Telehealth Nurse – free and expert guidance with registered nurses who specialise in eating disorders.  
  • Online Support Groups – peer-led groups that provide an open space to discuss what you are struggling with, reflect on current challenges and discuss coping tools. Different groups are available depending on your needs. You are welcome to attend multiple groups.  
  • Peer Mentoring Program – 1:1 recovery support with an EDV mentor who has experienced and recovered from an eating disorder. The program allows for 13 mentoring sessions over a six-month period. 
  • Carer and Family Support – carer specific services including Carer Coaching and online courses. 
  • LearnED eLearning platform – for self-paced education and online courses 
  • EDV Podcast – for lived experience perspectives and professional insights 
  • EDV Newsletters – for recovery support delivered directly to your inbox each month 


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