“I started getting quite self-conscious…and I just remember it was one Easter and I ate an entire Easter egg (I love chocolate) and I just thought, I don’t feel well. I went upstairs and I just tried to be sick, more for comfort rather than actually thinking ‘I need to get rid of these calories’ and I think it was just from then on I realised that if I did ever need to get rid of food, I could.”
Young Person, 17 (NHS)
When we think about eating disorders, we usually imagine restrictive food intake patterns or induced vomiting in the form of anorexia or bulimia.
Yet, eating disorders remain unique in how they impact each individual. Frequently tied to body image, there are also health implications of binge-eating disorder which involves out of control emotional comfort eating.
While young people aged between 14 and 25 are most at risk of developing an eating disorder, it can affect an individual at any age. It is important to keep in mind that the signs, symptoms and indicators of an eating disorder in one individual may not apply to another.
Inconsistent patterns may also make symptoms less noticeable or even misleadingly indicate recovery. According to the ‘BEAT ‘ Eating disorders’ charity, around 80% of people with an eating disorder were not classed as underweight.
Nationwide statistics of diagnoses are increasing each year. The rates of hospital admissions for those with bulimia and anorexia alone have doubled between 2010 and 2017 and BEAT believe that around 1.25 million people throughout the UK now struggle with an eating disorder.
Mood Changes and Family Meals
Unless there is an obvious crisis, mental health isn’t usually something families focus on at the dinner table, but this is precisely when they might want to be paying close attention. This is because it can be easier to spot an eating disorder around meal times.
Family meals are often rushed which makes it easier for young people to hide the fact that they aren’t eating – or that they are eating erratically.
Those with eating disorders are often very private when it comes to meal times. They don’t like eating in front of others and they find it difficult to cope with the pressures of maintaining a certain image of themselves – the image they want others to see.
All of this can come to a head around the dinner table and a young person’s family and friends might not even be aware that it is happening.
Spotting the Signs
At times, a parent, carer or guardian might already suspect that something is going on. They might have noticed that the young person makes comments about being overweight when they’re a perfectly healthy weight, or that the young person is always tired.
They might have noticed that the young person has started to exercise excessively or that they disappear to the bathroom after meals, or even want to eat away from family where it’s possible to hide food.
They might have noticed that the young person is developing an obsessive thought pattern around food and meal times.
Young people can become withdrawn, irritable and anxious around meal times. They might complain of being unwell, not liking food or only wanting to eat specific foods.
This anxiety in family social situations does not just revolve around feeling as though they will be pressured to eat, but they’re also worrying about feeling judged about their weight, as well as about what or how they eat, among other things.
(We say “feeling judged” because family and friends don’t actually need to be judging the young person for them to feel as though they are being judged.)
Supporting an individual with an Eating Disorder
By looking out for these symptoms, the aim isn’t to “catch out” a young person who is struggling, but to help to identify a serious issue and help to guide them to appropriate supports. We have listed some at the bottom of this article for you.
Remember, these aren’t the only signs of an eating problem and those displaying these signs might not necessarily be struggling with this issue, but they could be indicators to which you need to pay close attention.
Eating disorders are a complex mental health problem and the young people dealing with it deserve the support of their family, friends and wider community.
Seeking Help – Staff
Support for eating disorders is specialised and often delivered in a community mental health setting (Via CAMHs). With time and the right support young people can approach recovery and improve their relationship with food.
“I think all I would say to anyone who gets an eating disorder is just hang in there because you’ve only got things that are good to come, your life will get better.”
Young Person, 17 (NHS)
Beat Eating Disorders Charity
Professor John Morgan at Leeds Partnership NHS Foundation Trust designed the SCOFF tool to indicate a possible eating disorder. A score of two or more positive answers indicates a likely case of an eating disorder.
▸ Do you ever make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
▸ Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
▸ Have you recently lost more than One stone in a three month period?
▸ Do you believe yourself to be Overweight when others say you are too thin?
▸ Would you say that Food dominates your life?
 (Eating Disorder Admissions in England, 2018)
 (Eating Disorders. Know the First Signs, 2017)
 (Eating Disorders and Social Anxiety, 2012)