CW // eating disorders. Please note, this blog contains information you may find triggering.
Over the last 30 to 40 years, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased to become a widespread problem across the globe.
To further complicate the issue, eating disorder symptoms often align with ‘cultural norms’, making it difficult to distinguish when someone you know is struggling with disordered eating. For example, we live in a culture that supports extreme dieting, overexercising and compensating for the food we eat. However, these same behaviours could be signs of an eating disorder.
According to UK charity Beat, approximately 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK, while almost 30 million Americans are said to suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
Early intervention is critical to recovery, which is why in aid of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re discussing some of the signs you should look out for if you’re worried a friend or loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder.
WHAT IS AN EATING DISORDER?
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions affecting people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. People with eating disorders use disordered eating behaviour as a way to cope with difficult situations or feelings. This can include eating too much or too little, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means or a combination of these behaviours.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders are not all about food itself, but about feelings. For example, how the person treats food may make them feel more in control.
TYPES OF EATING DISORDERS
There are a number of eating disorders, but the most common include:
SIGNS OF AN EATING DISORDER IN SOMEONE ELSE
Eating disorders thrive in isolation.
As a result, you may notice someone avoiding social interaction, spending an increasing amount of time alone or not communicating as much as they used to. These are all warning signs that something’s not quite right.
It’s common for those with eating disorders to experience shame and secrecy, so creating a distance from other people serves to protect the disordered behaviour from being challenged.
2. PREOCCUPATION WITH FOOD
Take note if your friend becomes unusually preoccupied with their eating habits.
You may notice they overly plan meals well in advance, only eat at certain times or only eat food they’ve prepared themselves. Or you might notice this person cutting up food into tiny pieces or ripping it into parts. These are part of the compulsive nature of many eating disorders.
People with disordered eating can also become increasingly concerned about the nutritional content of foods. Elsewhere, you may notice food going missing or find evidence of large quantities of food being eaten.
3. DISORDERED PERCEPTION OF BODY IMAGE
Poor body image may cause them to make negative comments about their body weight or shape. In fact, the person they see in the mirror can appear completely different to who you see in front of you.
They may be inclined to constantly check their reflection in the mirror and touch certain parts of their body - including pulling and pinching their skin to check for excess fat. This is called ‘body checking’.
4. EXCESSIVE EXERCISING
It’s tough in this day and age to separate ‘healthy habit’ from ‘obsession’ - and while exercising daily is great for both your mental and physical wellbeing, there is a line to be drawn.
Someone suffering with an eating disorder may display ‘obsessive habits’ with fitness-related health. Perhaps this person never goes anywhere without their fitness tracker, refuses to skip a workout or pushes their limits until they break.
Being hyperactive is often linked with eating disorders, meaning you may notice that the person struggles to sit still. They may also be afraid that if they sit still, they’ll gain weight.
5. UNUSUAL PHYSICAL CHANGES
A clear sign of concerning behaviour is a drastic change in someone’s weight.
You may notice that they get light-headed when standing up, complain of digestive issues or always being cold no matter how warm the environment is, and look pale and tired. In women, their periods may have stopped.
Alternatively, binge eating disorder can lead to weight gain that even doctors can miss.
Not all eating disorders will show up in someone’s weight, so noticing changes in someone’s skin tone, general health and wellbeing is just as important.
6. GOING TO THE BATHROOM A LOT AFTER EATING
Often those with disordered eating feel the need to compensate for what they eat. Because of this you may notice evidence of purging behaviours, such as frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting and wrappers or packages of laxatives or diuretics.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
It can be difficult to know what to do if you’re worried that someone you know has an eating disorder. For one, they may not realise they have an eating disorder. They may also deny it, or be secretive and defensive about their eating or weight.
Pick a time when tensions aren’t running high and when the other person appears receptive and let them know you’re worried about them. Broach the topic gently, keeping in mind that despite how they appear, eating disorders are not just about food.
If your friend or loved one does admit to having an eating disorder, the most important thing to do is encourage them to get professional treatment. Don’t try to play therapist yourself. Specialists can help people understand more about their eating disorder and take important steps towards recovery.
The other way to help is informing yourself about eating disorders. There are many myths and misconceptions associated with eating disorders, which, if acted upon, can cause more damage than good. The person themselves may be very confused and scared about what they’re experiencing, and demonstrating a degree of understanding may serve to bridge the distance between you and their experience.
That being said, it’s crucial that you recognise and look after your own needs too. By keeping boundaries you can be a role model for self-care as well as an important source of support for them.READ MORE: Overcoming An Eating Disorder With Katerina Berglas
We appreciate it can be incredibly hard to witness someone you care about going through so much pain, but reaching out to learn more about eating disorders can be the first step in helping them on their road to recovery.
It’s important to understand that recovery from an eating disorder can be challenging and takes time, but, especially with treatment, the chances of full recovery are good.
To discuss your concerns, you can contact Beat via:
If you’re based in America, you can reach out to the National Eating Disorder Association on: