Unlike eating disorders which are classified using The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), disordered eating has no official definition. Generally, it refers to disturbed and abnormal eating behaviours which might include skipping meals, restrictive dieting or rigid rules around eating e.g. removing a major food group from the diet.
The eating disorders charity Beat estimates that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have a diagnosed eating disorder falling under four categories: anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), binge eating disorder (BED) and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). It is thought that in reality it could be double amount as many people do not seek help or have access to it so are not captured in the figures. We could speculate that a large majority of people in the UK are engaging in disordered eating behaviour but it is unclear in the research and difficult to estimate due to the lack of an official definition and criteria.
Eating disorders are complex and there is no one single reason why someone might develop an eating disorder. Environment and social factors are just some of the reasons that can combine to influence someone’s chance. With the rise in diet culture, social media and increased food availability (and therefore dietary choice) I believe our modern society can increase a person’s risk.
It is hard to believe that anyone has a normal relationship with food when dieting and engaging in disordered eating is the new normal, but many of us definitely do. Having a normal relationship with food includes four key components to eating: regular eating, diet variety (not cutting out food groups or particular foods unnecessarily), being flexible with food choices and eating with enjoyment.
While it is most common among young women, disordered eating can affect anyone of any age, gender or race. You are more likely to be affected if there is a family history of eating disorders or mental health illness, you have been criticised for your eating or the way you look, there is a pressure to look thin (for example models, athletes or ballet dancers), you have anxiety or low self esteem or have experienced trauma. We also know that there is a link between social media use and greater body image concerns and disordered eating (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016).
How Do You Know If Disordered Eating Is Becoming A Bigger Problem?
Many people with disordered eating will meet criteria for a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, but having unhealthy eating behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean that this will morph into an eating disorder. Some of the warning signs include:
• Spending a lot of time worrying about how you look and what you eat
• Avoiding social events with food
• Eating very little food
• Counting calories or measuring food obsessively
• Very strict dietary rules
• Deliberately engaging in behaviours that alter your weight and digestion including vomiting, laxative use, taking diet pills or excessive exercise
• Feeling cold, dizzy and tired all the time
• Digestive issues including IBS type symptoms
• Losing weight or gaining weight quickly
• Losing your period or irregular periods
How Does This Affect Your Health
Many people who engage in disordered eating either minimise these behaviours or do not realise the extent it could have on their physical and mental health. It is terrifying to see serious side effects often glorified by weight loss companies. Disordered eating can pose serious health concerns including risk of obesity, underweight or eating disorders, long-term gastrointestinal issues, osteoporosis, fertility issues, low heart rate and blood pressure and impact on mental health including anxiety and depression.
What Can You Do Break The Cycle Of Disordered Eating
I recommend making an appointment with your GP to check your physical health before making any significant changes to your eating and lifestyle. I would advise anyone who has severely restricted their diet or engaged in extreme compensatory behaviours (vomiting, laxative use or excessive exercise) to consult a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist for advice such as, us here at the Rhitrition Clinic where we have a team of professionals to help. The first steps towards dietary changes would be to eat regular meals and snacks and adding a variety of foods back into your diet. It can be helpful to take a break off social media or to unfollow unhelpful accounts, and reach out for help from friends and family as challenging disordered eating can be harder that we think so the more support the better.
What To Do If Disordered Eating Worsens
The first port of call is to speak to your GP to see what services are available locally or to get a referral to a practitioner who specialise in eating disorders. At the Rhitrition Clinic in London, we have a team of Registered Dietitians and Nutritionists that are trained to help people suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating. You can also call the Beat helpline on 0808 801 0677 or head to their website for helpful resources for both people suffering from disordered eating and their family/carers.
What Support Can You Give To Those You Are Worried About?
It can be difficult to know what to do and what to say if you are concerned about a friend. Let them know that you are worried, ask how they are feeling and how you can help. I would advise anyone to encourage their friend or family member to them to seek help and make an appointment with their GP or call the Beat helpline. It is important to avoid talking about weight, shape, food or diets in front of them and to be a role model when it comes to meal times. It is also important to remember not to blame or accuse someone of their eating behaviours - no one chooses to have an eating disorder. For more information about how to help, head to the Beat website.
This post was written by, Talia Cecchele who is a Registered Dietitian specialising in eating disorders, weight management and children’s health at the Rhitrition clinic. Talia has experience across a range of acute and community clinical roles, most recently working on an inpatient eating disorders unit with the NHS. Talia graduated with Class 1 Honours in Dietetics, has received training in Family Based Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing and has a Certificate in Paediatric Nutrition and Dietetics. You can find out more on Talia's Instagram @tcnutrition and website Talia Cecchele.
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