An eating disorder is when a person’s attitude to food becomes unhealthy and leads to the person becoming ill. The person can become focused on food and their body weight and shape, to such an extent that it interferes with their day to day life. They can present with food restriction, episodes of overeating followed by attempts to avoid weight gain from these episodes through vomiting or over exercise.
Despite their name, these disorders are not just about food; rather, they are about coping with emotional distress and gaining a sense of control where none is felt. Eating disorders can often have significant risks to mental and physical health. Sometimes eating disorders can be misunderstood as a ‘dieting disorder’ or a ‘phase’ the person is going through, leading to inadequate treatment.
Although it is true that anyone can get an eating disorder, man or woman, young or old, they are most commonly found in young women aged 13-25.
The most common eating disorders are:
- Binge eating disorder (BED) – when a person regularly loses control of their eating, eat large portions of food all at once until they feel uncomfortably full, and then often have feelings of upset and/or guilty
- Bulimia nervosa – when a person sometimes loses control and eats a lot of food in a very short amount of time (this is called binging). Then to try to stop gaining weight, will make themselves deliberately sick, restrict what they eat, or do too much exercise.
- Anorexia nervosa – when a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or both.
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) – is the name given where a person’s symptoms don't exactly match those of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, described above. However this does not mean it's a less serious illness
OSFED is the most common eating disorder, then binge eating disorder and bulimia. Anorexia is the least common.
Signs of an eating disorder
If someone has an eating disorder, you might notice them doing some of the following:
- Restrict the amount of food they eat/hide food
- Eat more than they need or feel out of control when they eat
- Eat quickly, going to the bathroom after eating
- Eat in secret/avoid eating in public so become more isolated
- Feel very anxious about eating
- Lacking in energy and low in mood. Reporting feeling cold most of the time, even in warm temperatures
- Eat in response to difficult emotions
- Only eat certain types of food or stick to a rigid set of diet rules
- Do things to get rid of what they eat to avoid gaining weight such as vomiting or over exercise
- Weigh themselves a lot and judge themselves based on what they weigh. Wearing baggy clothes to disguise weight loss
- Changes to, or loss of, periods in women
- Think about food and eating a lot, or all the time
- Compare their body to other people's and think about their shape or size a lot usually in a negative way.
People with eating disorders can be difficult to detect – they sometimes feel shame and their denial and secrecy can mean that they hide the full extent of their difficulties. For GPs, the relative rarity of eating disorders may mean that they have limited experience of recognising these disorders. It is important to remember that anyone can have an eating disorder, although they mainly affect young women. However, men, younger children and older people are also at risk of developing an eating disorders.
What should you do if you're worried about eating disorders
Anyone with an eating disorder must get professional medical advice.
In Dorset, either contact your GP or any health and social care professional, or you can refer yourself directly to the specialist ED service whose contact details are below and they will advise you of what the best next steps will be so that you can get help.
Dorset Young People's Eating Disorders service
Address: 71 Haven road, Canford Cliffs, Poole, Dorset Bh13 7LN
How can eating disorders be treated or managed?
There are treatments that can and do help, and people can recover from an eating disorder. The different eating disorders have different treatments.
The most useful therapy will vary from person to person and depend on individual circumstances. Family interventions are recommended as part of the treatment for children and adolescents. The therapy you’re offered should take into account your preferences and those of the people caring for you where appropriate.
In most cases, anorexia can be treated in outpatient facilities. More intensive treatment in day patient and inpatient units might become necessary if the condition worsens, if your health doesn’t improve in response to outpatient treatment, or there are other high risk factors to your physical health.
There are lots of different talking therapies that can be used to help treat anorexia. The aims of talking therapies are to reduce risks to your physical and psychological wellbeing, encourage healthy eating, and aid your recovery by helping you to develop healthy ways of coping with the thoughts and feelings behind your eating disorder.
The recommended treatments for binge eating disorder are mainly based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy that aims to help you deal positively with the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause the illness by breaking problems down into smaller parts. It shows you how to change negative patterns to improve the way you feel.
These treatments are based on evidence of what is most often effective in treating binge eating disorder, and you can read more about them at nice.org.uk. But remember, no two people are the same. If you don’t find these treatments are helping, let the healthcare professionals managing your care know. This isn’t criticising them, but giving them information they should find helpful as they work with you to find the treatment that will best suit you.
Below are other sources of support and help available online for both the person with the eating disorder and those who are involved with them be that parents, siblings, friends or teachers.