Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions, characterised by disturbances in behaviours, thoughts and attitudes towards food, eating and body image. Eating disorder behaviours may include extreme restriction of food consumption, binge eating, purging, extreme fasting or over-exercising, all of which can lead to serious health conditions.
Though there are many different types of eating disorder, the three most common are:
Beat, a leading UK eating disorder charity, estimates that around 1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder. That is approximately 1 in 50 people. Thus international awareness has become a priority, fighting myths about eating disorders and spreading the message that recovery is possible, with the right support.
In this post, we will examine what Eating Disorder Awareness Week is for, the possible warning signs of an eating disorder, and how to encourage a friend or family member to seek help if their eating behaviours are a cause for concern.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW), is a campaign aimed at providing education on the different types of eating disorders and how to spot signs and symptoms. The campaign aims to fight for better access for treatment for people with eating disorders and educate medical professionals, at all levels, on how to spot an eating disorder and make appropriate referrals. The campaign encourages us to empower those with an eating disorder to make positive steps towards having a healthier relationship with their bodies and food.
In 2021, Eating Disorders Awareness Week focused on binge eating disorder. It raised over £73,000 and saw 32 Members of Parliament add their signatures to the Early Day Motion, a programme aimed to help people recognise the signs of eating disorders early, and help prevent them becoming a serious health issue. In 2022, EDAW fell between Feb 28th and March 6th. The campaign focused on encouraging awareness and change through three key practices:
EDAW 2022 not only encouraged speaking up, stepping up and skilling up, but also shed light on myths about eating disorders based on misinformation. For example, many people believe that eating disorders only affect young women, but this is not true. Although eating disorders are reportedly more common in women, recent research shows eating disorders can affect anyone, and that in fact, 25% of people who struggle with eating disorders are male.
The symptoms of an eating disorder can be challenging to identify, and they can often go undiagnosed. Early detection of mental health difficulties allows for support and recovery sooner rather than later, minimising the impact of the condition. It is just as important with eating disorders as a long-term diagnosis can result in significant mental and physical harm, and in some cases even death.
It is important to note that there is no one-stop checklist of eating disorder symptoms, and that a diagnosis is based more on consistent behaviour patterns and physical presentations. Warning signs of eating disorders can be broadly divided into two categories:
People with an eating disorder often exhibit certain behavioural or emotional tendencies, such as an unusual preoccupation with food restriction, exercise, body shape and image. They may appear to become uncomfortable during meal times or even distressed in situations where food is present or eating is required. People with an eating disorder may also reject many foods, or even entire food groups. You may notice them being extremely selective with what they choose to eat, and notice irregular eating patterns. They may experience frequent mood swings or an excessive concern for body shape, size, and appearance, having a significant psychosocial impact (low self-esteem, anxiety and depression). In such cases, it’s not uncommon for people with an eating disorder to withdraw from social events, especially if they involve eating.
There are a wide range of physical symptoms of an eating disorder, with the most common being a drastic change in weight, (this could be either weight gain or weight loss). Due to disordered eating and accompanying unhelpful coping behaviours, people with an eating disorder can suffer from physical health problems too, for example, anaemia, low thyroid function, or low levels of red and white blood cells.
Other physical signs include general fatigue and prolonged recovery following injury due to a weakened immune system. They may also report unusually regular stomach pains or intestinal discomfort, as well as menstrual irregularities, feeling cold, dizzy (especially when standing up), or trouble sleeping.
Though it can be upsetting to see a loved one struggling with an eating disorder, there are steps friends and family can take to help someone manage better. Professional help is available, but individuals can also raise awareness of the signs of an eating disorder, and let others know that support is available for them.
For a person struggling with an eating disorder, support at home can be very valuable. It can help just to know that they are not alone, and that they have people who love and care for them.
It can help, as friends or family of someone with an eating disorder, to learn more about the disorder itself so that you can show understanding and feel better equipped at supporting the individual.
Let them know that you are not there to judge them or criticise them. Patience and understanding are instrumental when supporting someone with mental health difficulties, and active listening helps to deal with the emotional strain they are dealing with, as they will begin to see that support is available around them.
It can help to include and invite the person you are concerned about to social activities (ideally events which don’t have food as a focal point). Even if they decline to join in with certain things, this lets the person know that they haven’t been forgotten about. Eating disorders can drive down a person’s self-esteem; thoughtful behaviour and social support serve as a reminder that they are valued, and that help is not far away.
Try to gently guide the person towards professional help such as psychological therapy, if they are ready. This may mean sitting with them in a calm, non-judgemental way and reviewing the different therapy treatments available. Spend time going through real-life positive recovery stories of others with a history of an eating disorder. This can be very encouraging for the individual and help them move towards actively seeking help.
When discussing therapy options with them, discuss what therapy is like. People are much more likely to explore the possibility of therapy or other mental health services if they understand that it is not dogmatic or severe, but rather, a safe and impartial way of dealing with a complex issue.
The first step to seeking help is visiting a medical doctor. Someone with an eating disorder may feel anxious about visiting a doctor, so it can be helpful to offer to accompany them to a clinic.
This means viewing the eating disorder as a separate entity from the person – so instead of asking, “why did you feel the need to purge yourself,” frame the question as: “what did your eating disorder say to make you feel that urge?”. Externalising their eating disorder can help the person feel even slightly less burdened. It can help them create some space between themselves and the eating disorder and understand that they are not in fact their disorder but their disorder is separate to them, although it may not always feel that way. This technique can help the person view the demands of their disorder more objectively and encourage them to see that they can learn to overcome it.
Helping a person with an eating disorder is a continuous process. It’s often useful to ask the individual what you can do to help their recovery; for instance, it may be that there are certain trigger words, environments, or conversation topics that you can avoid whilst they focus on getting better. It can help to set clear boundaries around mealtimes, or to use a regular eating schedule. For instance, having an evening meal at the same time each evening will provide a helpful structure to the day, allowing the individual to mentally prepare for food intake. Setting boundaries could involve being aware of a person’s food consumption – perhaps providing pre-prepared portions rather than allowing them to help themselves. The individual may also wish to avoid conversations around calories, weight loss / weight gain or other food-related topics.
It can also be helpful to remind them of the positive outcomes of therapy, and to communicate that a setback does not mean they have failed in recovery. Remind them that experiencing a setback means they are in a place they have been before and have moved on from before, so they can apply the same methods and move forward again.
It’s important to recognise and avoid potentially enabling behaviours. For example, it may feel helpful to make accommodations with meal preparation, in order to manage someone’s eating anxiety, but it can in fact maintain the problem. While trying to reduce their distress is well-meaning, this type of behaviour can become an enabling pattern, one which ultimately makes it easier for everyone to overlook the issue.
Facing an eating disorder can be a distressing and difficult experience. However, there are a number of ways one can help a friend or family member in managing better, and they are most effective when used in conjunction with professional help. You can also find more help in our Anorexia Nervosa Guide.
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