Someone who has an eating disorder will be intently focused on their weight and body shape, which they may perceive as being unattractive or overweight. These perceptions lead to changes in eating habits which can affect the person's physical and mental health.
While eating disorders tend to be more common in certain age groups, they can affect men and women of all ages from all types of backgrounds. Typically eating disorders are a sort of coping mechanism, helping the sufferer to control or deal with difficult feelings - albeit in an unhealthy way.
Eating disorders are complex by nature and there can be a variety of signs and symptoms involved. Alongside the eating disorder itself, many sufferers also feel depressed and may experience other mental health difficulties such as self-harm.
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Do I have an eating disorder?
If your thoughts revolve around food or the way you look, and this is affecting the way you eat - you may be at risk of developing an eating disorder. Doctors typically use a questionnaire called SCOFF to help them diagnose eating disorders, the questions that are asked include:
Sick - Do you even make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
Control - Do you worry that you have lost control when it comes to the amount you eat?
One stone - Have you recently lost more than one stone in a three-month period?
Fat - Do you think you are fat even though others say you are thin?
Food - Would you say that food dominates your life?
This is generally used as a guide, however more thorough discussions would need to take place before a diagnosis was made. If you are worried about your relationship with food at all, seeking help early could help you from developing an eating disorder in the future.
Causes of eating disorders
There are many different theories as to what causes eating disorders, ranging from media pressure and cultural perceptions of beauty, to issues of control and a need for perfection. The truth is however, that there is rarely one single cause for developing an eating disorder - there are usually a variety of factors at play.
There are thought to be certain risk factors that can make someone more likely to develop an eating disorder, and these include:
- a family history of eating disorders, substance abuse or depression
- being criticised for eating habits, weight or body shape
- feeling a pressure to stay slim within a job role (for example models, ballet dancers or athletes)
- having certain personality traits, i.e. perfectionist, obsessive, anxious
- experiencing a trauma or loss, i.e. sexual abuse or death of a loved one
- having turbulent relationships with friends or family members
- experiencing a stressful time, such as problems at school, university or work.
Types of eating disorders
There are several different types of eating disorders, each with differing signs and symptoms. For a more detailed look at each disorder, please click on the link to read the full fact-sheet.
Anorexia nervosa - This eating disorder causes the sufferer to feel overweight even though they may be considerably underweight. A desire to lose weight causes the sufferer to skip meals, starve themselves and/or exercise excessively.
Bulimia nervosa - Similarly to anorexia, bulimia sufferers also have a desire to lose weight. With this disorder, this is achieved by bingeing on food and then purging - either by making themselves sick or using laxatives.
Binge-eating disorder - An eating disorder that makes sufferers feel compelled to overeat as a way of dealing with difficult emotions.
Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) - An EDNOS sufferer may have some, but not all of the typical signs of other eating disorders or may not meet the diagnosis requirements of these disorders, despite having disordered thinking about food.
If left untreated, eating disorders become detrimental to physical health and in some cases can be fatal. While it may not feel like it at first, telling someone how you feel will help you feel better in the long run. The good news is that there are plenty of treatment options out there that can help you recover from your eating disorder, and the first step is to seek professional help. If you don't feel comfortable telling friends or family, visit your doctor or arrange to have counselling. Speaking to a counsellor will offer invaluable support as they guide you through your treatment.
The type of treatment available for those with eating disorders varies depending on your personal circumstances, but may include:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - A therapy that aims to change the way you think and behave.
- Family therapy - Bringing your family together in a therapeutic environment can help ensure you have support at home.
- Medication - In some cases antidepressant medication may be prescribed to help regulate mood.
Spotting signs of eating disorders in others
If you are worried that someone you know may have an eating disorder, there are several warning signs you can look out for, these include:
- skipping meals
- complaining about being fat even when they are a normal weight or underweight
- weighing themselves constantly
- claiming that they have eaten elsewhere or will be eating later
- cooking large meals for others, but not eating themselves
- when they do eat, they only eat low-calorie foods
- they feel uncomfortable eating in public
- they make a trip to the bathroom after eating a large meal
- using or mentioning 'pro-anorexia' websites.
If you suspect a friend or family member has an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know what to do. The best thing anyone can do in this situation is to offer support. Encourage them to seek professional help and offer to go with them for support if they are anxious. Being gentle in your approach will work better than confronting or accusing them in an aggressive manner.
It may be helpful to print out some useful information for them to read; this may help them realise that they do have a problem and that it will only get worse without help. Reiterate how much you care and be there for them as much as possible.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are currently no laws in place that outline what training and qualifications a counsellor must have in order to treat eating disorders. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have developed a set of clinical guidelines that provide advice about the recommended core interventions in the treatment and management of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and related eating disorders. To view the full guideline, please visit the NICE website directly (detailed below).
More articles on Eating disorders
- Why diets don't work - part two
- Why do I overeat?
- Can't you see the 'hunger within'? When disordered eating becomes slavery
- Comfort eating, self-esteem and loneliness (reaching out for the biscuit tin)
- Males need help with body killers: from anorexia, bulimia and over-eating to body bulking steroids
- What are CBT-BN, CBT-BED and CBT-E?
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