Prisoner Self-Help

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Do I have an eating disorder?

by Deanne Jade

If you had an eating problem before going to prison, the stresses of prison life could potentially make it worse. Research suggests that female prisoners are twice as likely to have an eating disorder as women in the general population  – it has been estimated that up to 5% of women in prisons have obvious severe eating disorders, and it is suggested that up to 25% may be at risk, less severely affected or hiding their problems; in my recent visit to one prison I found that the prevalence of bulimia was 70%! There is very little information on eating disorders in male prisoners available at the moment, but it does not mean that men are not affected – they are less likely to seek help so true figures of men suffering with eating disorders are not known; it is likely that men with alcohol problems could be more prone to develop eating problems.

There are broadly speaking three types of eating disorder: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. An eating disorder is not an illness like measles. It is not something that you either HAVE or DON’T HAVE. Most women and many men are concerned with what they eat and how they look, and many people do strange things to control their weight.

People with an unhappy relationship with food do not necessarily fit neatly into the three main categories of eating disorder. Some people have features of all these problems and some people start with one disorder and then evolve into the other.

The Three Dimensions Of Eating Problems

Whether or not you have an eating disorder depends upon how you are functioning in three significant dimensions.


  • How are you THINKING about food, eating, your weight and your body?
  • Do you obsess about everything you eat or what you weigh?
  • Do you have bad thoughts about yourself as a result of your eating habits?
  • Do you compare yourself constantly to other people?
  • Do you have a lot of very strict rules about what you should or should not be eating?


  • How do you feel about your eating habits?
  • Is there a lot of guilt, anxiety and fear?
  • Do you feel fat even though others say you are okay?
  • Do you hate yourself for what you put in your mouth?
  • Are you scared of eating normally?
  • Do you feel helpless around food?
  • Are you depressed and anxious a lot of the time?


  • How do you behave with food?
  • Do you eat normally in front of others and binge in secret?
  • Vomit or use laxatives?
  • Are you always either on or off a diet?
  • Do you gorge certain foods or exercise excessively to control your weight?
  • Do you keep on eating when you have had enough or starve because you are afraid that you would never be able to stop eating once you had started?
  • Do you jump on the scales whenever opportunity arises?
  • Are you always on or off a diet?
  • Do you take slimming pills?
  • Do you feel that your behaviour is not normal – even perhaps dangerous to your health?

Where behaviour is concerned, many people lose sight of what is normal. They are so used to doing these things, they don’t remember what it was like to enjoy food and look forward to eating. Some people who behave dangerously with food are in denial about how serious their problems really are. But some people who have a serious eating disorder think they have no right to seek help because they aren’t “bad enough”.

What Kind of Eating Problem Do I Have?

If you…

  • Overeat in secret, either all or some of the time
  • Feel that your eating isn’t normal
  • Feel guilty about what you have eaten and feel like a bad person
  • Are constantly trying to lose weight or prevent yourself from gaining weight and ultimately failing
  • Think and anguish about food all the time
  • Feel out of control around certain kinds of food or any food.

…you are probably suffering from BINGE EATING/COMPULSIVE EATING

If in addition to the above you are…

  • Normal weight or slightly overweight and you vomit, or take laxatives to get rid of unwanted calories whether you have binged or not

…you are probably suffering from BULIMIA

If you are…

  • Normal weight or underweight and feel fat or are terrified of weight gain
  • Very fearful of eating
  • Hearing a voice telling you to keep eating less
  • Vomiting or taking laxatives after normal meals, snacks or any binge

…you are probably suffering from a form of ANOREXIA.

Eating disorders are extremely distressing and can be damaging to heath, and anorexia can be life threatening. If you recognise yourself in the above descriptions, please seek support. Expert psychological help in relation to eating disorders may be hard to access while in prison, but do speak to a member of staff you can trust who may be able to investigate what’s available for you.

Sources of information and support

National Centre for Eating Disorders

Beat – the leading UK eating disorders charity offering informaiton resources and support

First Steps Derbyshire – UK charty which has a prison outreach project

Deanne Jade is a psychologist and one of the first eating disorder specialists in the UK; she has over 30 years of experience as therapist and trains practitioners in working with issues such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, and obesity. She is the Director of the National Centre for Eating Disorders

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2 thoughts on “Do I have an eating disorder?

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