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Changing behaviours and eating habits of those who may be struggling with an eating disorder

Many of us have struggled with poor mental health over the course of the pandemic. In particular, the stress and anxiety brought by Covid-19 has impacted many people’s relationship with food. Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, saw a surge in calls to their helpline following March 2020’s first national lockdown. By August, they had seen a 81% increase in demand for these services, including a 162% rise in social media contact and a 139% in online group attendance. This was a worrying sign that more people were developing, or falling back into, disordered eating as they struggled with disrupted routines, uncertainty over the future and the strain of loneliness during self-isolation.

Eating disorder charity Beat saw demand for their helpline services increase by 81% in the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, which can cause someone to develop unhealthy eating habits to cope with difficult feelings and situations. They include conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. For those who understand their specific symptoms, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the coronavirus restrictions have made these conditions harder to manage. The way that we shop for food, availability of items, and potential stockpiling of foods in the home, have all helped eating disorders to thrive. Added to this is the impact on our day-to-day lives, changing exercise routines, and more limited access to personal and professional support. It’s never been more important to open up about what you’re going through, and at Priory, we’re always here to help.

It can be difficult to spot the signs of an eating disorder in someone. Those facing these challenges will often try to hide them out of shame. As social distancing measures continue, and mental health struggles are more prevalent as most of us have struggled to adapt our new normal, it can be even harder to see when someone needs help for an eating disorder. The team at Beat have given Priory a range of tips to support you or your loved one, if you have concerns about their behaviours around food.

What should you be looking out for in an eating disorder?

The sooner someone gets the support they need, the more chance they have of getting better. The first changes you might notice in someone probably won’t be physical, but more to do with how they feel and act. Here are some things to think about if you’re worried that your loved one might have an eating disorder.      

How do they react to situations with food?

Eating disorders are about more than food – the way someone treats food as part of their eating disorder is a way to cope with things they’re struggling through. This looks different from person to person, but most people experience some or all of the following:

  • Limiting how much they eat, by eating much less or by only eating certain types of food.
  • Eating a lot of food at once without feeling any control over what they’re doing (bingeing).
  • Getting rid of food they’ve eaten by, for example, making themselves sick or doing lots of exercise (purging).
  • They may want lots of detail about what’s going into a meal, be concerned about how healthy the food they’re eating is, or find reasons not to join you for dinner, like saying they’re not hungry or that they’ll eat in their room.
  • They might not finish meals; or take a long time to do so – cutting up food into tiny pieces or repeatedly pushing it around the plate can be ways that people delay eating or try to make it look as though they’ve eaten more than they have. You might find they often leave quickly after a meal – going straight to the bathroom or to exercise could be a sign that they’re trying to get rid of the food they’ve just eaten.
  • If someone is bingeing, you might notice that they’re buying lots of food, or that food is running out faster than you would expect. Binge eating isn’t something the person feels any control over – they might feel a lot of guilt and shame, and try to cover it up (for example, by running the shower to cover the sound of being sick).

tips for noticing the early signs of eating disorders in loved ones

Are they more withdrawn?

With recent disruptions to almost every normal social activity, it may not be obvious if your loved one is starting to isolate themselves. They may be avoiding you and other people they live with, or, if you’re not in a house together, they may be getting in touch less or not wanting to talk for very long. You may have noticed that they’re catching up with friends less often, or that they’re reluctant to return to the hobbies they enjoyed before lockdown.

They may also seem to be losing interest in solitary activities that they’ve enjoyed and might replace these with food or exercise-based hobbies that seem to be filling a lot of their time.

Have they lost their confidence?

Eating disorders can really affect someone’s confidence and self-esteem. This might mean they have body image concerns – they may be unhappy with their appearance, negatively compare themselves to other people, regularly check their reflection or weigh themselves, or alternatively avoid the mirror or scales. But it might affect their confidence in other areas too, such as school, hobbies, or relationships, and you may find that they set very high standards for themselves.

What’s their mood like?

Having an eating disorder affects every area of a person’s life. They may seem more anxious or unhappy, not just around food, their weight or shape but other things too. You might find they’re more irritable or going through mood swings, and they could struggle to concentrate. Often people experience an eating disorder as a ‘voice in their head’ – this eating disorder voice might make them behave in ways that seem very out of character, and it’s good to remember that this is not their fault.

How can you help someone with an eating disorder?

The key to helping your loved one is to do so as quickly as possible. You’ll be giving them the best chance of recovery by encouraging treatment for their eating disorder in its early stages. Here’s what you can do to approach them about your concerns:

  • Make sure you’re speaking to them in a space that feels safe. That’s probably somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed, but think about mood, too (neither of you should feel upset or angry) and about timing (avoid talking just before or after meals).
  • While it may not be possible to completely avoid it, try to steer clear of food or weight. Try to focus instead on changes to their behaviour or thinking that are concerning you.
  • Remember, they may feel defensive, as the eating disorder is often a way to cope that they may be reluctant to give up. They also may not be aware that they are ill. Speak to them in a way that makes it clear you’re on their side and aren’t accusing them of doing anything wrong – “I’ve noticed you seem quite stressed at the moment; how can I help?” is a better way to raise concerns, for example, than “Why are you so stressed?”
  • If they do get angry or deny there’s anything wrong, don’t be disheartened or put off. Reassure them that your concern is their wellbeing and they can talk to you any time. Try to pick up the conversation again as soon as you can.
  • Book a GP appointment as soon as possible so that you can ask for a referral to an eating disorders specialist. Beat has a leaflet with information for the GP to help you get the outcome you’re looking for.

How professional treatment can help with eating disorders

At Priory, we offer expert help for eating disorders, which is focused around individual challenges and goals in order to get the best possible outcome. If you think that someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call 0800 691 1490 or click here and we can arrange an initial consultation. We offer high-quality treatment at our specialist residential centre, Arthur House.

Our alternative service to hospital treatment is built around compassion and community, in the most comfortable surroundings. Arthur House’s treatment programmes take a therapeutic approach, addressing the root causes of each condition and building the skills to instil healthier long-term beliefs and behaviours. We also allow you to reintegrate into daily life with exposure work, supervising practical tasks that help you to cope with your responsibilities in recovery. We want to help you gain the confidence to move forward with the brighter future you deserve.

Blog reviewed by Steve Clarke (MSc, PGDip, FdSc, MBACP (Accred)), Hospital Director at Priory’s Life Works and Arthur House, 

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding eating disorder treatment, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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