It's estimated that 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder and the peak age group for being diagnosed is girls aged 15 to 19.
Here's our guide to spotting the signs and symptoms, and advice on where to go for help.
Types of eating disorder
Eating disorders are mental illnesses; the main symptom is a pre-occupation/obsession with food and/or weight and body shape. They can have many underlying causes which include genetic predisposition, self-esteem, brain chemical changes, perfectionist personality traits and problems such as bullying at school or work.
The most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia: This is where people keep their body weight as low as possible by dieting, using laxatives or exercising excessively.
- Bulimia: The person affected is caught in cycles of binge eating and then vomiting and using laxatives or diuretics to control their weight.
- Binge eating disorder: Those affected lose control and overeat on a regular basis in a short space of time.
When do they start?
Although eating disorders may start at any age, they often begin in the teenage years and can affect girls throughout their lives. Cases are thought to be on the rise due partly due to the pressures of the social media 'selfie' culture. A study, published in International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that more frequent use of Facebook was associated with eating disorders.
Men get eating disorders too
Girls and women are 10 times more likely to suffer from anorexia or bulimia than boys or men, but incidence in men is growing. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, males make up around 11 per cent of those affected.
8 signs of an eating disorder
Spotting the first symptoms of an eating disorder is extremely important. Here are some of the signs to watch out for:
- Are they obsessive about food? This may include a preoccupation with diets, checking calories on food labels and altered food habits, such as being secretive or eating in their room.
- Is their behaviour changing? They may seem disinterested and distant, emotionless, and experience anxiety and fluctuations in changing mood. People with eating disorders will avoid situations where food is involved and isolate themselves.
- Do they exercise excessively? They may develop a strict exercise regime and prefer to do it alone, such as running or the gym.
- Do they have a low self-esteem and distorted beliefs about their size? They may repeatedly weigh themselves and complain about being fat, even though they aren't.
- Have they lost weight? Someone with anorexia may experience rapid weight loss but with bulimia it may be less obvious. The first signs may be swollen glands, a puffy face, pale skin and tooth decay. They may also have little or no energy. Binge eaters may have yo-yo weight loss and gain.
- Do they spend time in the toilet after meal times? They may make excuses and you may find the sink or toilet blocked, or smelling of vomit.
- Are they wearing baggy clothes? People with anorexia will often try to hide their weight by wearing bulky layers and baggy sweatshirts.
- Do they complain of feeling cold? This can be a sign that their body weight has dropped too low.
Talking about it and getting help
The charity Beat (beating eating disorders) advises eating disorders don't go away by ignoring them – so talking about the problem is a vital first step, however difficult or awkward that might be.
Broach the subject when neither of you is feeling upset or angry, in a place where you won't be disturbed. Just tell them you've noticed changes in their behaviour and want to help. Beat emphasise that you shouldn't talk about food and diet – but do talk about feelings.
They may deny they have a problem at first, but make it clear you're there to support them and help them get support from professionals.
You can access help via your GP, who may refer you on to specialist services, and you can also call Beat's helpline on 0808 8010 1677 for advice.
Vitamin deficiencies are common in people with eating disorders. These supplements can provide nutritional support:
- Multivitamins: These are essential daily vitamins and provide a foundation of nutritional support.
- Vitamin D: 10mcg a day is recommended for all children and adults by Public Health England in autumn and winter.
- Vitamin B : B vitamins have several important functions for a healthy nervous system.