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Signs of eating disorders and what to look out for

[Article by Health Assured]

Eating disorders

Guide to Eating Disorders

Very few people have a completely non-emotional relationship with food. For many, food is linked to feelings of comfort, reward, control or guilt. When stressful or emotional events occur in life it is common for eating habits to change. However, for some individuals an eating disorder can develop where the relationship and behaviour towards food is linked to a more complex underlying mental health condition. Typically, the disordered eating develops over time, sometimes years, often at a point when life events have brought fear and insecurity. Changing one’s eating patterns can be an attempt by an individual to exert control when they feel they face an uncontrollable situation. Self esteem, personality and cultural/social factors can also play a part in the development of an eating disorder.

How do I recognise the signs of an eating disorder?

The two most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Both have serious consequences for physical and emotional health. Anorexia Nervosa is identified by excessive weight loss from self-starvation. Individuals may also engage in over-exercising or over-eating followed by self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics. Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by a cycle of discrete binge eating that is followed by purging through methods such as self-induced vomiting, using laxatives or over-exercising.

Some affected individuals display symptoms that are not fully consistent with the symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, for example Binge Eating. Binge eating is identified by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. The binge eater typically does not purge, but may fast or diet intermittently. Other eating disorders may include a combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, or may include different behaviours all together.

Individuals suffering from one of the two main eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa may experience the following:

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Denial of being underweight – may view weight loss as a positive achievement
  • Fear of gaining weight, avoiding eating with others, eating very little – being secretive about food
  • Feeling cold all the time, tiredness and difficulty sleeping
  • Constipation, abdominal pain, fainting spells, low blood pressure
  • In women menstrual cycle may be absent
  • Infertility, Osteoporosis, heart damage

Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Binge and purge cycles – often in secret
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of food and cravings
  • Avoidance of eating with others – may disappear after meals to purge themselves
  • Tooth decay, discoloured teeth, gum disease, bad breath
  • Sore throat, heartburn, inflammation of the stomach and oesophagus
  • Constipation or diarrhoea and abdominal pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Heart damage, Infertility

I recognise some of this and wonder whether I have an eating disorder. What should I do now?

  • The first and most difficult step to take is to admit that you have a problem so that you can start to seek help. While part of you may want to get better another part may be scared of giving up the eating disorder and recovery may be a slow process.
  • It is likely that you will need professional help to recover so it is important to talk to your GP. The treatment that will be most suitable to you will depend on your individual circumstances and may involve a combination of medical and psychological care co-ordinated by your GP.
  • Telling someone you trust about the disorder is also an important step towards getting the support you need.

I think that I know someone who has an eating disorder. What can they do?

The sooner someone gets help and support, the better their chances of recovery. They are likely to need professional support to recover and may need encouragement and help to seek this from their GP.

Even though it may be difficult for them to be around others at meal times, it is important that the individual continues to be included in social arrangements/family activities that help build up their self esteem.

I want to help them, what can I do?

  • For the person affected, their disordered eating is a solution to a problem rather than a problem itself; it is a way of expressing themselves. Try not to make assumptions about why the person is behaving the way they are, but instead give them the opportunity to share their feelings without worrying about how you are going to perceive them.
  • Encourage them to seek professional support from their GP.

Eating Problems

Anorexia, bulimia, bingeing and compulsive eating can blight people’s lives. NHS Choices has lots of further information – the signs of eating distress, possible causes and looks at the kinds of treatment available. It aims to help anyone who thinks they themselves, a friend, or a member of their family, may have a problem of this kind. Click here