Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening conditions which affect everyday life, including both mental and physical health. With the way celebrities, models and other people of interest are portrayed in the media, it is not surprising that the number of young people experiencing an eating disorder is increasing. So, let's start with some education.
What eating disorders are there?
When eating disorders are mentioned, it is generally assumed to be ‘anorexia’, however there are many different eating disorders.
Anorexia Nervosa, usually just called anorexia, includes a severe fear of gaining weight, an unrealistic self body image and refusal to maintain a healthy body weight. Those suffering anorexia tend to strictly count calories, usually eating far less than the recommended minimum. Anorexia can have life-threatening consequences including brain damage, organ failure, bone loss, heart issues and infertility.
Bulimia Nervosa, known as bulimia, is an eating disorder which tends to be associated with a repeated cycle of binge eating and vomiting, excessive exercising or use of laxatives to make up for the overeating. Just like with anorexia, those with bulimia usually fear weight gain and are unhappy with their body image. Bulimia can result in severe dehydration, gastrointestinal and heart problems.
Binge eating disorder is characterised by a repeated loss of control resulting in episodes of overeating. People affected tend to feel very distressed and guilty right after the episode. This condition differs from bulimia in that those affected do not restrict their diet, overexercise, use laxatives or make themselves sick. Due to this, those experiencing this disorder tend to be overweight. This can lead to feelings of guilt, distress and embarrassment which puts the individual in a cycle of overeating.
What causes eating disorders?
Eating disorders are complex, and there isn't typically a single clear cause for each. There are however various risk factors that make it more likely for someone to have an eating disorder. These factors come in three categories.
Biological - Biological factors are to do with your body, including balance of hormones, genetics and nutritional deficiencies, to name a few.
Psychological - Psychological factors are to do with your brain, and mainly centres around the perception you have of yourself. This can include a negative view regarding your body image, and low self-esteem.
Environmental - Environmental factors are to do with the surrounding environment. This can include family, profession, hobbies, trauma, peer pressure, stress and the media.
How can I recognise an eating disorder?
Recognising an eating disorder in the early stages can make treatment a lot easier for the person concerned. Those affected may not even realise anything is wrong, and may have spent a long time trying to hide their behaviour due to their own insecurities. If you know of any loved ones doing the following, be sure to speak to them in a calm way, without blame or judgement, and see if you can help them. Some symptoms are difficult to witness, however these are the most visible.
Dieting even once visibly underweight
Monitoring calories and fat intake constantly
Eating habits such as cutting food up into small pieces, hiding food or only eating alone
Obsession with food/recipes. May cook for others but not eat themselves
Depression and/or stress
Switching between overeating and not eating at all
How are eating disorders treated?
For someone suffering with an eating disorder, it's only natural to feel worried about seeking help. That's completely normal. We, as people that care, will want to remember this and approach the subject carefully, to make sure the person knows we just want to help them and that we care. The earlier we can help someone, the easier it will be for them. There are lots of ways to help, and ways to help yourself, including:
Monitoring what you eat and the nutritional values yourself can be a really positive way of coping. Science tells us that our bodies need certain minerals, vitamins, nutrients and calories to keep our bodies ticking over correctly. Someone with an eating disorder will have their meals controlled for them, with supervision - Why not do this yourself, or help someone you know, so you/they are always in control?
Therapy may help in some cases, to address any psychological or environmental factors causing the eating disorder. These could include recovering from any traumatic events, bereavements, stress, etc. With all mental health conditions, talking about your problems is usually the best place to start.
Seeing your GP is a big first step to make. There are all sorts of support groups, medications and charities that could help you or someone you know. They certainly won't be the only person experiencing their eating disorder and there is always help available if you know where to look.
Don't be hard on yourself. A mental health condition is just like a broken bone - They can be experienced by anyone, regardless of your background or upbringing. Your confidence and your self-esteem will need a big boost, so why not do something you love? Pick up an old hobby, reach out to your friends, visit your family. There are lots of things that can bring us happiness and finding distractions or positive things to fill your time with will be really helpful.
What are the statistics?
1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder
89% of the 1.6 million are female
14-25 year olds are most affected by an eating disorder
1 in 100 women aged between 15 and 30 are affected by anorexia
10% of people affected by an eating disorder are anorexic
40% of people affected by an eating disorder are bulimic
The rest fall into the Eating Disorder 'Not Otherwise Specified' category including those with binge eating disorder
Research shows that the earlier treatment is sought, the better the chance of recovery
If you or your loved ones are experiencing an eating disorder, ensure you seek medical advice as soon as possible. More help can be found here: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/helpline