The charity, Beat, estimates that there are over 1.25 million people in the UK struggling with an eating disorder (such as anorexia, bulimia, “binge-eating” or orthorexia) and around 11% of those affected are believed to be male.
The causes of eating disorders are varied and often complex and although many eating disorders develop during adolescence, it is not at unusual for some people to develop issues earlier or later in life. However, whatever the cause or your relationship with that person, friends and family (and even colleagues) can play a huge role in spotting the signs and symptoms and persuading their loved one to seek help.
Despite your best intentions, being there for someone with an eating disorder can be incredibly difficult and at times, frustrating. You may have already offered your support but found the constant mood swings hard to cope with, the deceit impossible to predict and an unwillingness to accept help, both exhausting and exasperating.
With Eating Disorder Awareness Week imminent, (25 February – 4 March) now is a good time to discuss how important and helpful it is for you to be aware of the signs and symptoms of disordered eating and the practical steps you can take to support the person in your life who is experiencing a troubled relationship with eating.
Learn more about their disorder
Increased understanding about their symptoms, treatment and the condition will enhance your ability to provide appropriate support to them. Your knowledge will help you reason with them about any incorrect or illogical ideas that may be fuelling the disorder.
Encourage professional treatment and be prepared to expect a negative reaction
If you notice your loved one has problems with eating normally, is losing weight or you suspect they may be bingeing or purging, then suggest they seek professional help. This might be a very difficult conversation to have and they may find it difficult to admit they have a problem. However, like with many conditions, treatment is more effective the earlier it is started. At my clinic, we have recently launched an outpatient service for people struggling with eating disorders. If they are refusing to seek help, then speak to a doctor or therapist about your concerns and find out what you might be able to do to encourage them to speak to a medical professional.
Be loving, patient and sympathetic
Trying not to be critical of their behaviour, even if you disagree with it, can be difficult as people with eating disorders are often in denial and can become extremely rigid in their behaviour and thoughts. Eating disorders are complex to treat and if it were easy for them to eat normally, they would have been able to do so by themselves. There may be times when you feel you have to set strict boundaries and other times when you have to step back and let your loved one take more responsibility for their own welfare. Try and adopt a caring yet firm approach.
Avoid commenting on their appearance or weight and instead help build their self-esteem
Your loved one is likely to already be very self-conscious about their body. Instead of commenting on their appearance, I would suggest reminding the about positive aspects of their personality and how much you appreciate having them in your life. Also, be mindful of the way you talk about your weight, size and the amount you are eating.
Don’t constantly monitor their eating but offer your time to chat
Speak to your loved one about how, or if, they would like you to be involved in their treatment and make it clear you are available for them if they want to talk about their feelings. If they decide they don’t want to chat to you, then encourage them to express their emotions to their therapist.
Seek support for yourself
Watching a loved one affected by an eating disorder can be extremely distressing and can often lead to tension in your relationship. You may experience feeling frustration and helpless. It’s important that you look after yourself. Take time to find out about support groups for family and friends of those with an eating disorder that you could join. Sharing your experiences and hearing or others in similar situations can be incredibly helpful in making you realise you aren’t alone, and you are likely to learn new ways of coping with the situation from others.
Useful websites and helplines: