It is estimated that just over one million people are affected by eating disorders in the UK, with people in the 14-25 age bracket being the most at risk of developing a disorder.
Women and girls are more likely to suffer from anorexia or bulimia than men and boys, although the number of males affected by eating disorders seems to be rising.
However, despite the high number of those affected, the causes of eating disorders can often be misunderstood.
Sometimes, the main reason is identified as social pressures to be thin but more often than not, the causes are much more complicated.
Biological factors can play a part, as well as psychological aspects.
Having an anxiety disorder, an obsessive personality or low self-esteem can lead to the development of an eating disorder, as can being stressed at work or school.
Traumatic events from the past, such as abuse or the death of a loved one, can also be a contributing factor.
There are several types of eating disorders, including:
n Anorexia nervosa – this is when a person aims to keep their weight as low as they can, either by not eating enough or exercising to excess.
n Bulimia – this is the act of binge eating and then being sick or using a laxative to get rid of the food.
n Binge eating – eating to excess, but without the other symptoms of bulimia.
As it is common for those with eating disorders to be secretive or defensive about the condition, it can be hard to recognise when someone close to you is suffering.
There are several warning signs that you can look out for and if several of these are present in someone it could be that they are suffering from an eating disorder:
n Complaining about being overweight, even if they are a normal weight, or underweight;
n Only eating low calorie foods, like salad;
n Missing meals;
n Avoiding eating in a group by claiming they have just eaten, or are about to eat somewhere else;
n Refusing to eat in public, such as in a restaurant;
n Repeatedly weighing themselves or looking at their body in the mirror;
n Mood changes, sleeping disturbance;
n Exercising excessively.
As well as putting a strain on relationships with family and friends – and impacting on work and school – the physical effects of an eating disorder can prove fatal.
Eating disorders are treatable, but this can often take a long time and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that can be taken.
It all depends on the type and severity of the eating disorder the person is suffering from.
The earlier the identification and diagnosis, the better the chance of recovery and the lower the chance of relapse.
Various therapies are available, such as behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, family counselling and group therapy.
These can help a patient discuss their disorder and their attitudes to food.
Above and beyond these treatments, medication can be used to treat anorexia.
In extreme cases, and if the patient’s physical health is at sufficient risk, hospitalisation may have to take place.
There are many places to go if you think someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder.
If you are worried about your eating habits, visit your GP.
Ask a relative or friend to accompany you if you feel you need some support.
If you are concerned about a family member or friend’s eating habits, encourage them to visit their GP.
The charity beat (b-eat.co.uk) has a variety of resources as does careukeatingdisorders.com.
Or check out Anorexia and Bulimia Care (anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk) and Men Get Eating Disorders Too (mengetedstoo.co.uk)