Eating disorders - not just a teenage problem

We all have to do it – but while, for some people, eating is a pleasure, for others the very thought of eating is a source of horror. Newspapers often show horrific pictures of skeletally thin teenage girls ‘starving themselves to death’, but eating disorders can strike at any age.

What are eating disorders?

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. People with anorexia restrict the amount they eat and often lose so much weight they put their health at risk. People with bulimia go through phases of binging on food and then ‘purging’, either by making themselves sick or taking laxatives. They are usually normal weight or even overweight.

Both conditions are more to do with control (or loss of control) over your body than they are to do with not liking food. In fact, if you have anorexia, you’ll often be obsessed with thinking about food.

Who gets eating disorders?

Anorexia is most common among teenage girls, but it can develop much later in life. Bulimia affects about 1 in 12 women in the UK, usually from their late teens-40s. Both are much more common in women than in men, but men can be affected too. Having eating disorders can run in families.

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders are much more common in Western countries, and it’s likely that the pressure in society to be thin and ‘perfect’ plays a major part. Many people who develop eating disorders have low self-esteem. Others feel there is a lot of pressure on them (they are often ‘high fliers’ or perfectionists).

Could you have an eating disorder?

The kind of questions you can ask yourself include:

  • Does food dominate your life?
  • Do you worry about losing control of your eating?
  • Have you lost more than a stone in the last three months?
  • Do people tell you you’re thin, even though you think you’re fat?
  • Have you taken laxatives or made yourself sick because you’re uncomfortably full?

How do I spot an eating disorder in a loved one?

Warning signs include:

  • Losing lots of weight.
  • Making excuses not to eat in company.
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide their shape.
  • Secret stashes of unhealthy food.
  • Being very concerned that others in the family eat lots.

How can I help someone with an eating disorder?

If you think someone you love has an eating disorder, being supportive is key. You need to help them to recognise that they have a serious medical condition which goes much further than food and needs medical help. People with eating disorders are often secretive and they’re likely to be sensitive if you broach the subject. You may want to talk to their GP in confidence and get ideas on how to persuade them to seek help. Reassure them you’re ‘on their side’ – you could be their salvation.

Could you be malnourished?

You don’t need to be painfully thin to be malnourished. It includes people who aren’t getting enough essential vitamins and minerals, as well as those short of calories. About one person in three admitted to hospital is malnourished, and it’s much more common in people over 65 than in the rest of the population.

If you’re older or have other long-term health problems, including (but not only) dementia or cancer, it can be hard to eat enough to meet your needs for vitamins, minerals, etc.  This affects your ability to fight off infection and to recover from illness. That’s why there are now national guidelines for helping people with malnutrition. Key signs include being underweight; having lost weight; and going through phases of not eating much for a week or more because of illness.

Treatments include oral nutritional supplements (usually drinks), which provide concentrated bursts of vitamins, minerals and calories.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.