Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder and where to seek help

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The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a rise in people with eating disorders seeking help from charities, a senior medic from the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned.

While there is no official data, Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the college’s faculty of eating disorders said the strain of lockdown has increased eating disorders.

“During the pandemic, there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of uncertainty, and there has also been uncertainty about food," Dr Ayton said.

“People have been buying things that may last longer. Some of these foods – like pasta or biscuits – can be trigger food for people who are bingeing or who have bulimia.

“Because of the lockdown, people’s social networks and their social support systems have also reduced quite significantly.

“A lot of public health messages have also been about weight loss and exercise during the pandemic and that has been promoted by the government because of the risk of obesity and serious Covid.

“But if you are a younger person worrying about your weight and shape, you’re bombarded with these messages and think ‘I should lose weight’.”

To compound the problem, those who are suffering are not coming forward because they believe others are more deserving in a pandemic, Dr Ayton said.

In December, the annual Health Survey for England reported that one in six adults in England - 10 million people - in 2019 may have a possible eating disorder – up from 6% in a 2007 adult psychiatric morbidity survey.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses where people use disordered eating behaviour as a way to cope with difficult situations or with how they are feeling. Eating disorders can take several forms. It can involve limiting the amount of food eaten, eating large quantities of food in one go, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. making themselves sick, misusing laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise). There is often an overlap between different eating disorders.

For people with eating disorders, how they treat food is often a way of helping them feel more able to cope or may make them feel in control.

Types of eating disorders include*:

  • anorexia - where people are of a low weight due to limiting how much they eat and drink. 

  • ARFID - Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, more commonly known as ARFID, is a condition characterised by the person avoiding certain foods or types of food.

  • binge eating disorder - where people eat very large quantities of food without feeling like they’re in control of what they’re doing.

  • bulimia - People with bulimia are caught in a cycle of eating large quantities of food (called bingeing), and then trying to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (called purging).

  • OSFED - Sometimes a person’s symptoms don’t exactly fit the expected symptoms for any of these three specific eating disorders. In that case, they might be diagnosed under the umbrella term “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED).

*Source: BEAT

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What to do if you have an eating disorder

You might begin by writing down your thoughts and feelings affecting your eating and how long the eating difficulties have been going on.

Perhaps you think about how you might want someone to help you.

When you do decide to talk to someone, it doesn't have to be face-to-face. An email, text or phone call can all be a good way of starting the discussion. Go with how you feel most comfortable.

If you would rather not talk to someone you know, the Beat Helpline is available every day.

It can be helpful to have some information to give to the person you speak to or direct them towards websites such as Beat or the NHS.

How to help someone with an eating disorder

How you help will be determined in part by your relationship with them for example if they are you child or a pupil.

It can be hard to speak to someone with an eating disorder not least because they may not be aware or are in denial they are suffering with one. But it is vital you encourage them to open up so they can get the help they need. Here are a few of the ways you can approach someone you are worried about.

  • Be informed. BEAT has lots of information tailored at family and friends of people with eating disorders to help you better understand.

  • Have some information or leaflets to hand them.

  • Choose a time and a place were you will be most relaxed. Avoid talking before or after mealtimes.

  • Try not to centre the conversation around food and/or weight. 

  • Avoiding getting angry or frustrated.

  • Don’t wait too long before approaching them again even if it was a difficult conversation

Where to seek help if you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder?

Beat provides helplines for adults and young people offering support and information about eating disorders. These helplines are free to call from all phones.Helpline: 0808 801 0677 Studentline: 0808 801 0811 Youthline: 0808 801 0711 

Adult email support is open to anyone over 

Studentline email support is open to all students: 

Youthline email support is open to anyone under 18: