Mental Health Matters: Eating Disorders

What are Eating Disorders?

Scrabble tiles spelling out words related to Eating Disorders.Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that anyone can have regardless of their background, age, gender or ethnicity. It is estimated by Beat that around 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK with 25% of these people being men. But, as with all mental health, stigmas mean many people may go undiagnosed.

People with an eating disorder use disordered eating behaviour as a way to cope with difficult situations or feelings, so it is important to remember that these disorders are not all about food itself; the way the person treats food may make them feel more able to cope, more comfortable, or give them a feeling of control though they may not be aware that the behaviour is serving this purpose.

Behaviours can include limiting the amount of food eaten, eating very large quantities of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (such as making themselves sick or misusing laxatives, fasting or excessive exercise)

Types of Eating Disorders

  • Eating Disorder graphicAnorexia – was this the first disorder thought of when you read the title of this blog? Anorexia is a serious mental illness where people are low weight due to limiting how much they eat and drink. As well as limiting what they eat, someone with Anorexia may do lots of exercise, make themselves sick or misuse laxatives to get rid of food they have eaten as well as go through phases of binge eating, then purging. The seriousness of the physical and emotional consequences of the condition is often not acknowledged or recognised, and people often do not seek help.
  • Bulimia –  a cycle of eating large quantities of food and then trying to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (called purging). Binge eating is often a way to cope with difficult emotions; someone may feel driven to binge eat if they’re feeling stressed, upset or angry, for example.
  • ARFID or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Disorder – a condition characterised by the avoidance of certain types of food, having a restricted intake of the amount of food eaten, or both.

Myths & Facts

A person standing on weighing scales

Eating disorders are a choice

Fact: Eating disorders are mental health disorders and are never a personal choice. They are complex illnesses – there is no single cause. Instead they are thought to be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Eating disorders are extremely distressing for both the individual and their loved ones, and often are accompanied by feelings of shame. They require specialist treatment, but people can and do get better.

Eating disorders are someone being vain and seeking attention

Fact: Although there is often an association between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, eating disorders are not someone being vain or just wanting to look a certain way. Eating disorders are serious diagnosable illnesses; they are not a lifestyle choice, a phase, or someone being attention-seeking. In reality, people diagnosed with eating disorders often go to great lengths to hide the eating disorder and to keep it secret.

Eating disorders only happen to young girls

Fact: Research shows that eating disorders do not discriminate – they affect people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, weights, and socioeconomic statuses

Eating disorders are a diet that has gone wrong

Fact: Although for some people, one trigger for an eating disorder may be that they have been dieting, eating disorders are not “a diet that has gone wrong”. They are serious mental health disorders.

What To Do If You Are Worried Someone Has an Eating Disorder

Two men talking whilst sitting opposite each other at a tableIt can be difficult to raise the issue with someone if you suspect they have an eating disorder as you may worry you’ll say the wrong thing or that you’re insulting the person. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and are not the sufferer’s fault. Often people with eating disorders deny or don’t realise there’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ill. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, and countless people who are in recovery agree that breaking the silence is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time. The sooner someone can get treatment, the greater their chance of a full and sustained recovery.

If you are talking to someone you’re worried about, here are three things you can do:

  1. Think about what you want to say and make sure you feel informed.
  2. Choose a place where you both feel safe and won’t be disturbed. If you’re one of several people who have felt concerned, don’t talk to the person together as they may feel you’re ambushing them but decide who they are most likely to open up to.
  3. Choose a time when neither of you feels angry or upset, avoid any time just before or after meals.

There are many different treatment pathways. The right one for the person you are supporting will depend on lots of different things, including level of physical and psychological risk, what eating disorder they are diagnosed with, their age, support network, and other physical or mental illnesses they might have. The road to recovery will likely begin with a visit to the GP. If they diagnose an eating disorder, they should refer the person to an eating disorders specialist. Specialist treatment may include appointments with a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor, dietician, or a combination of them all.

Written by Neil Ward, Training Consultant at WA Management.

Get more advice and support for Eating Disorders from the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity Beat.