Eating disorders explained

Eating disorders are a huge problem in the UK that affect 1.1 million people, according to the charity Beating Eating Disorders (beat), but lots of people don’t understand that they are an illness.

“There are still too many stereotypes about eating disorders. You’ll still hear people describe them as a lifestyle choice, a fad or a fashion,” explains Emma Healey, director of operations at beat. “People really don’t understand that eating disorders are a serious physiatrist condition – the notion of a diet gone wrong could not be further from the truth.”

Who gets eating disorders?

Young women are the most common sufferers – most eating disorders develop between the ages of 15 and 25 – although men and women of all ages can be affected. The most well-known forms of eating disorder are anorexia and bulimia, although other types do exist, including binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating. Problems can begin when someone uses food to cope with painful situations and difficult feelings, or to relive stress. However, many sufferers are not aware – or unwilling to accept – that they have a problem.

An eating disorder doesn’t normally come from just one cause. It results from a combination of factors, which could include low self-esteem, problems with friendships and family relationships, the death of a loved one, problems at work or university, lack of confidence or sexual abuse. Long-term illness or concerns over sexuality can also be triggers, while in situations where there are high academic or social expectations, “controlling” eating may be a way to cope with those stresses.

The problem is that an eating disorder takes control of the sufferer, which can cause serious problems. In terms of anorexia, extreme weight loss has terrible effects on the body, particularly the heart, while sufferers often self-harm or misuse alcohol or drugs. Bulimics can do serious damage to their internal organs, or encounter dangers such as the rupturing of the stomach or choking. At worst, eating disorders can result in death. “Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any condition; they are incredibly serious and incredibly complex,” says Healey.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of anorexia include sufferers restricting the amount they eat or drink and exercising to burn off what they perceive to be excess calories. They may experience extreme weight loss, constipation and abdominal pains, dizzy spells, bloated stomach, puffy face or ankles, downy hair on the body, dry or discoloured skin, loss of interest in sex and, for girls, loss of periods.

Bulimia sufferers attempt to satisfy emotional needs with food. They will binge eat and then have an immediate urge to get rid of that food either by vomiting, taking laxatives, starving or doing lots of exercise. It is an eating disorder that is difficult for others to notice, as a sufferer’s weight will fluctuate or stay the same. Symptoms include lethargy, depression, poor skin condition, hair loss, sore throat, bad breath and tooth decay, caused by excess vomiting.

Is there help available?

Eating disorders should be treated both physically and psychologically, according to guidelines set out by The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice). Anorexia sufferers have to have their weight stabilised – particularly if they are dangerously underweight – but the psychological elements of the disorder also have to be addressed to help sufferers manage in the long term. Sufferers of bulimia are encouraged to follow a self-help programme or take antidepressants; a programme of cognitive behavioural therapy can also be offered.

“Research shows that it takes six years to recover from an eating disorder,” says Healey, “And the trouble is that relapses are not unusual, so you will often take one step back before you move forward.”

However, with support, sufferers can get their lives back on track. “It can be really difficult but at the same time, people do recover and we hear from lots and lots of young people who are very far along the road of recovery and have been able to do things with their lives that they have never ever done before,” says Healey. “We were talking to one person that was able to go to France last year as part of her course, whereas two years ago she was told she would never be able to go to university. Recovery is possible.”

For more information

  • If you think you have an eating disorder you should go to a doctor or a counsellor, or call beat’s helpline – 0845 634 1414 – to get more information.
  • You can also visit their website, where there is additional information if you suspect a friend or loved one has an eating disorder

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