Updated: Apr 26
Food plays a huge part in all of our lives, and we spend a lot of time planning, preparing and eating it. Oh, and clearing up afterwards too!
However, when someone develops an unhealthy relationship with food, or becomes obsessed with body weight or shape, this is known as an eating disorder, which is a mental health problem.
Research suggests that about 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, with 75% of these being female and 25% male. Eating disorders can last for several years, but lots of people recover from them. However, some people will will have a much harder and longer problem, sometimes lasting a lifetime.
The causes of eating disorders are not well understood. Some research suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition, and there are also ideas around environmental factors, including social media.
Types of Eating Disorder
People who have anorexia try to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough and/or exercising too much. Of course, this is unhealthy and their body my become injured as it starts to starve.
Anorexia can affect men and women of any age, but is more common in young women, typically starting in the mid-teens.
Binge Eating Disorder
People who have binge eating disorder (BED) eat large amounts of food in a short space of time. This will then make them feel upset or guilty.
Both men and women of any age can have BED, but it usually starts in the teens or early 20's.
People who have bulimia binge eat, however, in an attempt to stop themselves gaining wight, will make themselves sick and/or take laxatives and/or exercise too much. This is known as purging.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder
To be diagnosed with anorexia, BED or Bulimia, someone's symptoms must fit neatly in to a pre-defined list of symptoms. However, the world is a messy place, and if someone's symptoms don't fit, they will be classified as having an 'other specified feeding or eating disorder' (OSFED).
Signs that Someone may have a problem
The symptoms of someone with an eating disorder will vary from person to person. However, look out for some of these common ones:
very low or high weight (low or high BMI) or sudden weight loss
excessively worrying about weight or shape
lying about the amount of food eaten
avoiding social events involving food
not eating much food or eating very slowly
going to the bathroom after eating, may return looking flushed
deliberately being sick a lot, may have sore, cracked lips
strict food habits or routines
changes in mood
feeling cold, tired or dizzy
The person may have any combination of symptoms, and some of them may be hidden from you. Don't forget, the particular set of symptoms that the person is experiencing may not fit nicely in to your expectation.
Help and treatment
The first step in the process is to get help. This can be a very difficult step for people, as they can find it hard to admit the issue. However, evidence suggests that the earlier a person gets professional help, the less severe their condition will be.
A trained mental health first aider will know how to start a sensitive conversation with the person, listening without judging and demonstrating empathy. They will try to encourage the person to seek professional help.
Professional help is usually accessed through the GP, who will talk to the person about their relationship with food and decide whether they should be referred to a specialist for more help.
If the person does not want to do this, or would like more support, the charity Beat provides lots of online resources as well as telephone helplines for adults, students and children.
Beat also have lots of advice on how to have a conversation with someone that you suspect has an eating disorder.
In summary, eating disorders are a common mental health condition in the UK, particularly affecting young women.
If the condition is recognised early, and the person gets help, recovery can be relatively quick. A mental health first aider will know how to start a conversation with someone, and hopefully be able to convince them to see their GP.
If you'd like to know more about any of this, why not book one of our mental health courses for your group?
NICE CG69 - Eating Disorders: Recognition and Treatment, https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng69
Beat (Eating Disorders), https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/