Eating Disorders. What is it?
Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour.
A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.
It can often be very difficult to identify that a loved one or friend has developed an eating disorder.
Warning signs to look out for include:
- missing meals
- complaining of being fat, even though they have a normal weight or are underweight
- repeatedly weighing themselves and looking at themselves in the mirror
- making repeated claims that they’ve already eaten, or they’ll shortly be going out to eat somewhere else and avoiding eating at home
- cooking big or complicated meals for other people, but eating little or none of the food themselves
- only eating certain low-calorie foods in your presence, such as lettuce or celery
- feeling uncomfortable or refusing to eat in public places, such as at a restaurant
- making themselves sick after eating
- exercising excessively, using laxatives or diet pills to reduce weight
- the use of “pro-anorexia” websites
It can be difficult to know what to do if you are concerned about a friend or family member. It’s not unusual for someone with an eating disorder to be secretive and defensive about their eating and their weight, and they may deny being unwell.
Cause and symptoms of it
Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex.
An eating disorder may be associated with biological, genetic or environmental factors combined with a particular event that triggers the disorder. There may also be other factors that maintain the illness.
Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person having an eating disorder include:
- having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse
- being criticised for their eating habits, body shape or weight
- being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job – for example, ballet dancers, models or athletes
- certain underlying characteristics – for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist
- particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special
- difficult relationships with family members or friends
- stressful situations – for example, problems at work, school or university
Treatment for eating disorders is available, although recovery can take a long time. It’s important that the person affected wants to get better, and the support of family and friends is invaluable.
Treatment usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping them deal with the underlying psychological causes. This may involve:
- using self-help manuals and books, possibly under guidance from a therapist or another healthcare professional
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – therapy that focuses on changing how a person thinks about a situation, which in turn will affect how they act
- interpersonal psychotherapy – a talking therapy that focuses on relationship-based issues
- dietary counselling – a talking therapy to help a person maintain a healthy diet
- psychodynamic therapy or cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) – therapy that focuses on how a person’s personality and life experiences influence their current thoughts, feelings, relationships and behaviour
- family therapy – therapy involving the family discussing how the eating disorder has affected them and their relationships
- medication – for example, a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be used to treat bulimia nervosa or binge eating