Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect young people, children and adults of all ages, genders and ethnicities. They most commonly develop in adolescence but can also occur in children as young as 6 or 7, and in older adults. They are much more common among women and girls, but it is thought that up to 25% of sufferers are male. Eating disorders can also affect transgender people.

If you are worried you may have an eating disorder you are not alone – recent research suggests around 725,000 people in the UK have an eating disorder, and it is thought that 60% of these first developed under the age of 16 (Beat, 2015).

Eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness and should always be taken very seriously, however they are treatable conditions, the sooner someone gets the support and treatment they need the more likely they are to make a full recovery.  Eating disorders include Anorexia (or Anorexia Nervosa), Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) and food phobia.

An eating disorder is an illness not a diet. Many of us struggle with eating – the ‘right’ amount or the ‘right’ things – and feel under pressure to lose weight and conform to society’s ‘ideal body’, believing this will make us happier and more successful. While eating disorders can begin as a diet, they are not the same thing – when people have an eating disorder this begins to dominate their whole life, and impacts on their school/ work/ social and family life. Often people who develop an eating problem are struggling with difficult feelings or stressful events in their lives and the eating disorder can begin as a way of coping with these or regaining a sense of control.

When someone has an eating disorder thoughts about food, calories and body weight can take over, and are often accompanied by feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame. People can start to become isolated from friends and stop enjoying things they used to do, they might avoid eating in front of people or become panicky around food, and they may make themselves sick or want to exercise immediately after eating. People with an eating disorder may also experience low self-esteem and self- worth, negative thoughts, low mood, self -harm and difficulty coping with life.

If you think that you or a friend or family member may have an eating disorder it is important to talk to someone you trust and ask for support. It is very important for people to see their GP (family doctor) as some eating disorders can cause serious physical health problems if left untreated. The GP will make a referral into a specialist eating disorders service if they feel this is needed. See Docready  to help you prepare for talking to your GP.

You could also contact the B-eat YouthlineKooth or Childline  for confidential support, B-eat is a national charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders.

It can be hard for people with an eating disorder to recognise and accept that they have a problem – this is part of the illness – family members, friends or other professionals may need to encourage the person to access support. The earlier people get help the easier it is to recover, and talking to someone is the important first step on this road. It can be very hard to get better alone and support from friends, family and health professionals is essential.

Your friend or family member may not recognise or want to admit that they have a problem with eating, this can make it difficult for you know how to support them. The important thing is to listen and give your friend the time and space to talk about things they are struggling with. It might help to ask your friend what they’re going through or if there are things they are worried about.

Encourage your friend to see their GP or the school nurse as they may need a physical assessment, particularly if they have lost weight, or a referral into a specialist service.

Try not to judge your friend or put them under pressure to change their eating habits or put weight on. They will probably need professional support to do this. Try to chat about general things or compliment your friend on their personality and avoid talking about their appearance or weight.

It can be helpful to keep including your friend, inviting them out and encouraging them to do things you both enjoy, or spending time at home of they aren’t up to going out. If you friend turns down your invitations, remember this is probably part of the illness and let them know you will still be there for them when they do want to talk or hang out. Just knowing you are there can be a great support.

If you are really concerned about your friend or they have lost a lot of weight then tell an adult you trust, eating disorders can be very serious and sometimes we need to break trust/confidentiality in order to protect people from harm, and it’s important to get some support for yourself.

See B-EAT UK for more information about spotting the signs of an eating disorder and accessing help.

Myth buster #1

Myth: Only girls have eating disorders

Fact: Actually 25% of people with eating disorders are male. People of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds can develop an eating disorder.

Myth buster #2

Myth: Eating disorders are just a phase young people will grow out of.

Fact: Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are unlikely to get better without specialist treatment. Eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness and should be taken very seriously. However it is possible to make a full recovery with the right support and many people go on to live full and happy lives.

Myth buster #3

Myth: Eating disorders are caused by seeing skinny, unrealistic and glamorous pictures of celebrities and fashion models online and in the media

Fact: All young people are exposed to these images and most do not develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex and there is no one direct cause. Many factors can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, these can include genetic and biological factors, relationship difficulties or pressures at home, work or school.

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