February 26th – March 6th marked Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the UK.
And as charities and organisations work to increase awareness and support for individuals suffering from eating disorders or disordered eating habits, experts are warning of a stark rise in the number of young people requiring treatment for eating disorders.
According to data from NHS Digital, released to the BBC, the number of under-20s admitted with an eating disorder over the past year was 3,200. Shockingly, this is almost 50% higher than in 2019-20.
In fact, numbers are so high that hospitals are reporting that they struggle to find enough beds to care for patients.
What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can affect anyone at any stage in their life. Sufferers may show physical symptoms, although not always. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation or background.
Those with an eating disorder use the control of food to cope with certain feelings and situations. For example, they may eat too much, too little, or worry about their weight, body shape, or appearance.
Although eating disorders are commonly associated with girls and women, they often affect men. Actually, studies suggest that around 25% of people with an eating disorder are male. In reality, the figures are probably even higher.
Whilst eating disorders can be serious, it is possible to make a full recovery.
Types of eating disorders
There are many different eating disorders, each with its own distinct but often overlapping symptoms. Types of eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- ARFID – Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Bulimia Nervosa
- OSFED – Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder
- Rumination Disorder
What are the signs and symptoms of eating disorders?
Symptoms of eating disorders include:
- Spending a lot of time worrying about weight or body shape
- Eating very little food
- Making oneself sick
- Taking laxatives after eating
- Habits to avoid eating: eg chewing gum
- Exercising too much
- Having stringent habits around food
- Changes in mood
- Avoiding socialising where food will be involved.
Physical signs of an eating disorder include:
- Very low or high weight based on age and height
- Problems with digestion, including bloating, constipation, or diarrhoea
- Feeling cold, tired, or dizzy
- Pains, tingling, or numbness in your arms and legs
- Girls not getting their period or signs of delayed puberty
- Feeling your heart racing, fainting, or feeling faint.
If you think you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. Leaving symptoms for too long can make the condition entrenched and more difficult to treat. In addition, getting help quickly can avoid long term damage to internal organs.
The first step is usually visiting your GP, often a daunting prospect. Especially if you find it difficult to talk about how you feel. However, your GP is there to help and will do everything they can to support you in your recovery.
Your GP will ask you some questions about how you’re feeling, your symptoms, and your eating habits. They’ll also check your overall health with some basic checks and perhaps send you for blood tests.
From there, they’ll work with you to decide the next steps. This might include being referred for specialist treatment.
How to help if someone you know has an eating disorder
Encourage them to seek help
To give your friend or relative the best chance of recovery, it’s important to seek professional help. But keep in mind that this will likely be an incredibly difficult step for them. So encourage them to get help, offer to go along with them, and make the process as easy as possible for them.
Listen to your friend or relative and let them know you’re there for them whenever they need you. It might be difficult if they’re doing and saying things you don’t agree with, or if they initially reject your support, but let them know you’re there whenever they are ready.
Build their self-esteem
Make sure they know how much you care about them, what a great person they are, and how happy you are that they’re in your life.
If someone has an eating disorder, they may not want to join in with trips, events, or activities. But don’t stop inviting them. Keep talking to them and inviting them along, just as you’ve always done. Even if they don’t take you up on the offer, they’ll really appreciate being asked.
Further support and information about eating disorders and their symptoms can be found here: