I have fought hard to be where I am now.


Did you know this?

Eating disorders usually arise during adolescence or early adulthood, and occur more often amongst women than men. For women, the average occurrence is estimated at 8%, whilst for men at 2%. About 8% of all Flemish students report having an eating disorder, amongst which anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most frequent. Someone with an eating disorder usually has other issues too. Most of the time, students wait too long before seeking professional help, or they do not seek help at all.

A sense of control

An eating disorder is a persistent mental-health condition with diverse underlying causes. Usually a combination of cultural, social, psychological and biological factors are involved.

Eating disorders typically arise during or right after adolescence, as a reaction to the many changes inherent to this life stage, which are experienced as threatening. Transition to higher education is often a critical period for their onset as well.

People with eating disorders usually have a negative self-image and low self-confidence. They are afraid of being rejected and show a tendency towards perfectionism. Hence, control over their eating behaviour and weight becomes a way to take control of their lives.

Eating disorders in all shapes and sizes

Distorted eating patterns and weight problems are central to eating disorders. There are many different disorders, but the three most common are:

  • anorexia nervosa: central to this condition are body weight and a distorted body image. People with anorexia are afraid of gaining weight and try to avoid this at all costs, e.g. by compulsive exercise or using laxatives. They feel fat while they are actually very thin or even underweight.
  • bulimia nervosa: frequent binging and compensation behaviour (e.g. self-induced vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise) are central to this condition. Just as with anorexia, people with bulimia have a distorted body image whilst their weight is usually normal. It is therefore more difficult for the outside world to immediately notice and recognise bulimia.
  • binge-eating: here, frequent binging is also central, yet an essential difference with bulimia nervosa is the lack of compensation behaviour like vomiting. People with this kind of eating disorder are usually overweight.

A person may evolve from one kind of eating disorder to another.

A far-reaching impact

An eating disorder develops gradually. Besides eating and weight problems, it usually entails serious physical, psychological and social consequences. Due to a fixation on body weight and a skewed perception of the body, a person with an eating disorder sees himself or herself as heavier than he or she really is.

Usually, someone with an eating disorder has other issues too. Amongst students, eating disorders often go hand in hand with anxiety and mood disorders or self-injurious behaviour.

Anxiety, as well as shame at their behaviour, mean that many young people try to hide their eating disorder. In the case of anorexia, it is because they deny the problem themselves; for bulimia, it is because they are ashamed of it. By wearing concealing clothing they try to cover up their weight problem. By withdrawing socially, the feeling of being alone only increases. Often, they wait too long to ask for help.

Recognising early signs

It is essential to recognize signals of eating disorders and weight problems as early as possible. These signs are situated at different levels:

  • physical: change in weight (losing or gaining weight or weight fluctuations), headaches, tiredness, lethargy, irregular or absent menstruation, sore throat, hoarseness, swelling of the salivary glands, getting cold very easily (cold hands and feet, blue fingers, lips or chilblains)
  • behavioural: preoccupation with food and eating (too much, too little or very selective), excessive exercising
  • psychosocial: negative self image, obsession with weight and body image, dissatisfaction with or shame at own body, concealing clothing, low self-worth, lack of self-confidence, fear of failure, perfectionism and competitive spirit, social isolation

Talk about it

Are you dealing with persistent eating and weight problems? Have a conversation with someone who you feel comfortable with and trust, like a good friend, your parents, sister or brother. This can be a huge relief, and talking about it also helps to piece things together. You can also find help together.

If you don’t immediately have the courage to tell someone in your direct surroundings, then try to approach someone who is familiar with similar experiences, such as a GP or a student counsellor at your college or university.

You can also anonymously contact Awel (102 or via www.awel.be) or Tele-Onthaal (106 or via tele-onthaal.be), or the Suicide Hotline (1813 or zelfmoord1813) for questions regarding suicidal thoughts.

I felt strong enough to ask for help.


Seek help

As eating disorders tend to be persistent, it is important to reach out for professional help. Support from your general practitioner, family and friends is essential.

Treatment usually proceeds in phases. First, efforts are made to restore a regular eating pattern and healthy body weight. In a later phase, you learn to rebuild your self-image and develop skills to deal differently (i.e. more constructively) with problems and difficult emotions. In doing so, you look more closely at your thoughts about eating, weight and body images, and check them against reality. In some cases, therapy is combined with medication. For example, antidepressants can help to prevent binge eating (in the case of bulimia).

Besides individual therapy, there are also different forms of group therapy, in which mutual recognition and acknowledgement provide extra support. As group members are able to support each other, they can reinforce each other's feeling of not being alone.

Weightened and decided : students & expert share their experiences

Dr. Laurence Claes is a professor (KU Leuven, UAntwerpen) and expert in self-injurious behavior, eating disorders and personality disorders. In this episode, our host Carola is joined by the professor and student Julie to talk about health and eating disorders.

Worried about someone?

Have you noticed a friend dealing with irregular eating behaviour, and are you worried about your friend? Talk about it and share your concerns. Try to be understanding and listen to the story without judging.

Keen to learn, read or hear more about this topic?




  • Eetexpert.be the Flemish Knowledge Centre for Eating and Weight Problems gathers together all relevant information on the topic. (Dutch)
  • Proud2Bme you can find blogs and interviews on eating problems, psychological issues, health, healthy eating and self-acceptance. Via the forum and chat you can get in contact with fellow sufferers and receive support from experienced experts and professionals.
  • Anbn.be you can find information on eating disorders based on experience expertise. The association offers an information and meeting place for people suffering from an eating disorder as well as their close friends and family.