5 Things You Need to Know About Eating Disorders
by Carolina Mountford
- Eating Disorders are mental illnesses which means you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. A person’s weight is a poor measure of their mental wellbeing as someone can be at a normal or near-normal weight but finding life incredibly difficult. It is possible to have an eating disorder and be studying, working etc or you can have an eating disorder and it costs you everything: your job, your relationship, your friendships. You simply cannot tell how unwell someone is until you start to talk to them and get to know them.
- Only 6% of people with eating disorders are underweight (anorexia nervosa) which therefore means the remaining 94% are easily missed if all we are focussing on or looking for is someone’s physical appearance.
Source: Beat Eating Disorders 2021
- Eating disorders can affect ANYONE, of any age, race, religion, gender, ability, socio-economic group and job status. If we continue to subscribe to the false view that eating disorders only affect white, middle class, teenage girls, then we risk alienating and ignoring everyone else who struggles with eating disorders and needs treatment. There are some sections of society that are already less likely to seek help due to increased stigma, for example men and those of certain cultures where it would be seen as shameful to have a mental illness. Eating disorders also blight the lives of those with disability too, whether it’s a visible or invisible disability. Remember we are talking about mental illnesses, and they do not discriminate between those with a disability and those without. Crucially, everyone is worthy of support.
- Weight and shape are rarely the starting point for eating disorders and there is no single cause for them. Research has shown that eating disorders have a genetic predisposition and are triggered by the interplay of biological, social and emotional factors. More often than not, eating disorders develop as a response to a traumatic or difficult life event. Or sometimes, because of an inability to express what we are feeling.
- Eating disorders are not about food; they are about thoughts & feelings. Food just happens to be the vehicle for those emotions. The difficulty is, unlike other addictions where someone has to learn to say no to something, people with eating disorders have to learn to eat again. To make peace with the very thing that has tortured them. We need to eat not just once, but several times a day. Forever. Recovery is hard and exhausting.
5 Ways You Can Help Someone
- Talk to them: As a general rule, it’s always better to say something rather than nothing if you think someone you care about might be struggling, but there are ways of doing this that will make a difficult conversation somewhat easier.
- Don’t have the conversation immediately before, during or after a meal. Mealtimes are already stressful for someone with an eating disorder so try to keep the two separate.
- Remember, eating disorders are not about the food so keep the conversation away from food, weight etc. Ask them about how they’re feeling, what’s going on for them, tell them you’ve noticed some changes in mood or behaviour etc. Perhaps you’ve seen someone become more withdrawn, more anxious, irritable, sad etc.
- Remind them over and over that you care for them and would like to help in whatever way you can. This can be very powerful for them to hear as they may be fearing rejection from those around them.
- It is so easy for the person with an eating disorder to misinterpret what is being said so be extra mindful of the language that you use and remember this is a mental illness not a choice they have made.
- Suggest doing an activity together; something like pottery painting is great because the focus is off them, it’s easy to talk whilst doing something else and it’s harder to become distracted. Painting or crafts, jigsaws, board games are also good as they don’t revolve around food.
- Don’t exclude them; keep inviting your friend or loved one to social things as this may help to lessen their withdrawal and it sends the message that they are still liked and wanted.
- Support them at mealtimes: depending on where they are at with their eating disorder / recovery, ask them what would be most helpful at mealtimes. You could try some distraction techniques and remember to keep the conversation neutral at mealtimes.
- Separate the eating disorder from your loved one: It’s important to create distance between the illness and the person thereby making it easier to challenge some of the behaviours and thoughts. Eating disorders can make the person do and say things that they wouldn’t normally do or say. Remember, they are struggling with a mental illness and your loved one is still there behind it all. You could say something like:
- What did the eating disorder say to make you be sick after lunch?
- What does the eating disorder make you believe about yourself?
Freedom is possible!
Freedom, over and above recovery is entirely possible and eating disorders need not be a life sentence. Regardless of whether someone has had an eating disorder for 5 months, 5 years or 15 years, complete freedom is possible. This is not something someone has to ‘live with’ or ‘manage’ for the rest of their life.
Eating Disorders Expert by Experience
Carolina Mountford lived with eating disorders and other common co-morbidities, such as depression for 15 years, beginning in her early teens. She has now been free from eating disorders for 18 years and is passionate about communicating a message of hope, to everyone suffering and those who are caring for someone with an eating disorder, that total freedom is possible. After reading psychology at Exeter University, Carolina has undertaken several counselling courses, has helped to lead eating disorder recovery courses and delivers talks and workshops on various aspects of mental illness, whilst raising awareness of, and helping to end the stigma so often associated with these conditions. As a signee of the Mental Health Media Charter, she keeps up to date with latest developments in the field through research and regular Continued Professional Development (CPD).
First Steps ED www.firststepsed.co.uk
Anorexia Bulimia Care www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk
SWEDA UK (Somerset & Wessex Eating Disorders Association) www.swedauk.org