This week, 26 February – 3 March, marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual campaign to educate the public about eating disorders and to provide hope, support, and visibility to those affected.

Eating disorders are problems that affect a person’s eating behaviours and can have a serious impact on their attitudes and feelings about both food and their body. They are characterised by abnormal eating habits, distorted body image, and intense preoccupation with weight, food, and body shape. They can have devastating effects on a person’s physical and emotional health, and without early intervention, they can lead to long-term health problems and possible fatalities.

Eating disorders do not discriminate – they affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, and can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including genetics, environmental influences, and psychological factors.

Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting those affected by eating disorders, estimates that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, with the number of people seeking treatment for these conditions has been steadily rising in recent years. Sadly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness, and last year the NHS revealed more young people than ever are receiving treatment for an eating disorder.

The importance of early intervention

Eating disorders are complex issues that require specialised treatment and care. Early intervention is crucial in order to prevent these conditions from becoming more severe, harder to treat and having a more serious long-term impact.

Early intervention means providing treatment as soon as possible when someone needs it. Research suggests we should try and identify someone with an eating disorder within the first three years of the illness. People with eating disorders experience changes to their brain, body and behaviour, and the earlier they receive help, the better their chances are of making a full recovery.

Eating disorders can lead to serious health complications, including heart problems, organ failure, and even fatality. Early intervention can prevent these health issues from occurring and can also prevent the development of more severe mental health conditions. This is why it is so important to be able to identify the early warning signs of eating disorders and make appropriate referrals for treatment.

Spotting the signs of disordered eating

Eating disorders can be difficult to spot because typically those struggling often go to great lengths to hide their behaviours. However, there are some signs and symptoms to look out for, varying from emotional to physical indicators.

It’s important to remember that someone struggling with an eating disorder generally won’t show all the signs and symptoms at once, and the indicators vary across the disorders. This guidance is intended as a general insight into the types of behaviours that may indicate a problem.

Physical signs
  • Significant fluctuations in weight.
  • Stomach complaints and pain.
  • Changes in bowel habits.
  • Changes in menstrual regularity, including stopped or missed periods.
  • Feeling dizzy, weak and/or tired.
  • Changes in skin and hair (such as being dry and brittle).
  • Acid-related dental problems, including cavities and erosion of enamel.
Emotional signs
  • Obsession with weight, food, dieting, calories and carbohydrates to the point that eating and managing weight become a primary concern over other activities.
  • Obsessing over body image, body size/shape, a specific part of the body and/or the number on the scale.
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or entire food
  • Performing specific food rituals.
  • Showing signs of mood swings or increased irritability.
  • Withdrawing from social activities that involve food.
How to help

We don’t underestimate how difficult it is to intervene and offer support to someone you suspect is struggling with an eating disorder; you don’t want to cause upset, anger or embarrassment. We’ve put together some guidance on how to approach the topic if you recognise some of the warning signs in a loved one to help you:

  • Start the conversation

Early intervention is associated with the best outcomes in relation to eating disorders. The further down the line it gets, it is typically much harder to address and your loved one is more likely to deny any problems at all. If you’re concerned about someone, it’s important to start a conversation with them. Express your concerns in a non-judgemental and empathetic way and let them know that you’re there to support them.

  • Try to help build their self-esteem

This doesn’t mean commenting on their body and complimenting their current physique, but instead informing them of their qualities and the positive impact they have on people. This will help combat any feelings of worthlessness and allow them to see how appreciated they are. Avoid commenting on their appearance, as this can be triggering and may reinforce their negative body image.

  • Don’t stop including them

It’s likely your friend or loved one may try and isolate themselves and get out of activities where they can, so it’s important to keep trying to engage with them and always extend the invitation, even if they decline. The ask will allow them to see they are valued and loved.

  • Give time, not criticism

It can be hard to hold back offering advice or criticism when we want to help someone, or when we don’t agree with how our loved ones see themselves, but remember you do not have all the answers, and your most valuable asset is to listen in this situation. The best thing you can do is ensure your loved one knows you’re there for them – even in stages where they’re rejecting friendship, help and support.

  • Offer resources

Provide your friend or loved one with information about eating disorders and local resources, such as treatment centres, therapists, and support groups. Encourage them to seek professional help – eating disorders are complex and require professional treatment. Encourage them to seek help from a medical professional who specialises in eating disorders.

The importance of self-care

Whether you have just been diagnosed with an eating disorder or have already started your recovery, you will constantly be reminded that self-care is a fundamental necessity. For many people with eating disorders, practising self-care can feel awkward and somewhat uncomfortable due to a lack of self-compassion, but it’s seen as an important part of recovery and allows us to better manage our struggles.

Self-care tips for those struggling
  • Keep talking about your struggles with those closest to you, even if this feels difficult to do. You can also journal your feelings.
  • Surround yourself with people who positively support you.
  • Join an eating disorder support group. These groups provide a safe environment where you can talk freely about your eating disorder and get advice and support from people who know what you’re going through.
  • Do everything you can to make sure your brain and body are getting the regular and adequate nutrition they need to recover.
  • Get treatment for other mental health concerns too (e.g. anxiety and depression) if these are a problem for you.
  • Ask your healthcare team to help you make a relapse prevention plan.
  • Work out what triggers your symptoms (e.g. certain times of year or stressful life events). Make a plan to deal with them, such as going to therapy more often during these times or asking for extra support from family and carers.
  • Fill your life with activities that you enjoy or make you feel fulfilled. Try something you’ve always wanted to do, such as learning a skill or a hobby. When you are busy doing something worthwhile, you will focus less on food and weight.

If you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s eating habits, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. There are many resources available for people with eating disorders, including support groups, online communities, and specialised treatment centres. By working together to raise awareness of these conditions and provide the right support and care, we can help to ensure that no one faces an eating disorder alone.

Other useful resources

BEATOnline support – Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)

Re Think Mental Illnesshttps://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/about-mental-illness/learn-more-about-conditions/eating-disorders/

Talk EDhttps://www.talk-ed.org.uk/

Eating Disorder Supporthttps://www.eatingdisorderssupport.co.uk/

SEEDhttps://seed.charity/

The Mixhttps://www.themix.org.uk/search/eating+disorder

Childlinehttps://www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/your-feelings/eating-problems/

CALMhttps://www.thecalmzone.net/guides/eating-disorders

This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, be outward in your support for people with eating disorders. If you’re concerned about someone, start a conversation with them and offer resources and emotional support. With early intervention and the right support, recovery is possible.

Remember, you’re not alone in this struggle. If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, HOPELINE247 is here for you. Call 0800 068 4141, text 88247 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org. Our advisers are here to support you from 9am to midnight, every day of the year.

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