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From irritability to withdrawal — Dr Zoe reveals eating disorder warning signs

IT’S easy to fall into the trap of thinking eating disorders are just about food and losing weight. From the outside, that might be what they look like.

For some, it’s about limiting how much you eat, while other people eat in large quantities before purging. The truth is, there are lots of different eating disorders – it’s not just anorexia or bulimia.


There are lesser-known conditions like disordered eating, which can be harder to diagnose because the patient might not fit expected sets of symptoms.

And what many people do not realise is that people living with anorexia will often suffer bulimia or binge-eating too.

Many sufferers will move between different diagnoses as symptoms change and there is often lots of overlap. And while rates of clinical eating disorders are estimated at a little under two per cent of the population, research suggests that up to half of us demonstrate problematic or disordered relationships with food, body and exercise.

But that’s where it is important to realise it isn’t just about the food itself, it is about how a person feels.

The way the person interacts with food may make them feel more able to cope, or may make them feel in control.

The reality is that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, and for many they have only got worse during the Covid pandemic. It’s worrying, given that eating disorders can be very dangerous and even fatal in some cases – anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.

But they can be treated. Like any illness, the sooner they are picked up, the better, and the more likely it is that a person can get the right help and support.

So who is at risk? Again, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking eating disorders only tend to affect young women. It’s true that they are most likely to be diagnosed, particularly between the ages of 12 and 20.

But eating disorders can happen to anyone – of any gender, age, or ethnic or cultural background. In fact, it’s thought around one in four sufferers is male, according to eating disorders charity Beat.

There’s no one reason why a person develops an eating disorder, but lots of things are thought to play a part. You may be more likely to be diagnosed if you suffer depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or if you are a perfectionist.

If you’ve been criticised for your eating habits or body shape before, that too can play a part.

If you are the parent of a teenager and worried about your child, there are some signs worth watching out for.

Common symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Eating a lot, in a short space of time, known as binge-eating
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after eating
  • Being fixated on food
  • Fear of putting on weight
  • Being very critical about weight and shape
  • Making yourself sick
  • Misuse of laxatives, exercising excessively or fasting
  • Anxiety, especially around eating in front of other people
  • Social withdrawal and isolating themselves
  • Irritability and mood swings

It can be hard to notice the signs, because in many cases people will try to hide their eating disorder. If you do suspect that a child, sibling, friend or loved one is struggling, there are ways you can try to help. Try not to back them into a corner and avoid trying to talk about the issue around meal times.

It’s about what the person is feeling rather than how they’re treating food, so try saying something like: “I wondered if you’d like to talk about how you’re feeling,” rather than telling them they need to get help.

If they tell you there’s nothing up, keep an eye on the ­situation and don’t wait too long before checking in again.

There is lots of support available from charities such as Beat, or if you’re really worried speak to your GP, who can help you to access specialist care.

And if you are reading this and know deep down that you have an eating disorder, there are ways of opening up.

Try writing down how you feel, focusing on what you think affects your eating, how long it’s been going on for and what kind of ­support you would benefit from. If talking it over in person works for you, great – try your GP as a starting point.

There is no right or wrong way to say it, it’s about finding what feels most comfortable for you.

If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, you can contact the charity Beat on 0808 801 0677 or visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk.

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