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Eating Disorders - it’s about mood not food.

Up to 6.4% of adults in the UK display signs of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is just one of the ways mental illness can present itself to those around us both at home and in the workplace. Being mindful of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2nd – 8th March 2020, I thought it would be good to understand the signs of eating disorders, the impact on the workplace and how to support someone you suspect may be living with an eating disorder.

“Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, from medical complications associated with the illness as well as suicide.”

“A shocking statement.  It highlights the need for greater awareness, that eating disorders are an extremely serious and complex mental illness, that have a major impact on the person’s life with potentially fatal consequences.”

A common misconception is that disordered eating is simply a way of young women attaining super skinny bodies but that is simply not the case. Research shows that 25% of people living with an eating disorder are male but this could be higher with stigma and discrimination preventing men from getting a diagnosis and receiving help. Eating disorders affect both men and women, young and old and it is more about mood than food rather than body image. Often, eating disorders are a coping mechanism for dealing with underlying emotional distress and stress related issues which is crucial to remember when supporting someone at home or in the workplace so that focus is placed on recovery from whatever is causing them distress rather than focussing on the disordered eating.

It is estimated that 1.25m people are living with an eating disorder in the U.K 1 in 4 people living with eating disorders are male.

Taking those figures into account and the fact hospital admissions are increasing around 7% every year means you are likely to work with, or know someone, who is living with an eating disorder.

Read on for more information about the different types of eating disorders, how you might support someone, the impact on the workplace as well as links to useful resources.

Types of eating disorders

There are many types of eating disorders including: Anorexia, Bulimia, A-Typical Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Orthorexia and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). Read more about the different types of disorders in more detail at the websites for the charity BEAT & NHS .

Spotting the signs of an eating disorder

It might not always be easy to spot if someone has an eating disorder and people who are living with one may go to great lengths to keep it a secret. People with an eating disorder might also genuinely not realise they are ill. Someone with Bulimia might be within a normal weight range and someone with Binge Eating Disorder might be overweight but it is important to remember that not all overweight people have an eating disorder.

However, some signs to look out for include:

  • Change in behaviour

  • Excessive weight gain/loss

  • Obsessional behaviour around food, dieting and weight

  • Withdrawing from social occasions that involve food

  • Becoming obsessed with exercising and having a fixed exercise regime

  • Stockpiling or hiding food

  • Frequently eating large quantities of food and/or at odd times such through the night

  • Often visiting the toilet straight after food

  • Evidence of laxatives such as packets in drawers, clothes or bags

  • Evidence of purging such as smelling vomit on the person or staining on teeth

Reaching out to someone with an eating disorder

  • Choosing a time when both you and the person are not feeling rushed or stressed and avoiding mealtimes and places that serve food is best.

  • Remember it’s about mood not foods so it is important to focus on how the person is feeling rather than their food habits or how they are looking. You could try simply asking how the person is as you’ve noticed they’ve not been themselves lately and you’d like to help.

  • Do not trivialise, criticise of guilt shame the person as a way of ‘snapping’ them out of it.

  • Be empathetic to whatever they’re telling you and reserve your own judgements about their situation.

  • Reflect back what the person is telling you so they feel they are being heard.

  • Be prepared for a negative response!

What if the person doesn't want help?

A person living with an eating disorder may not be aware they are ill so it can be a shock for them to hear you are worried they have one and they may become defensive. Don’t take this personally and be patient, the person may need some time to reflect on your conversation but remember you cannot force anyone to seek help either.

You also have to remember that the eating disorder is most likely a coping mechanism for underlying distress so to suggest they seek help which would ultimately remove their coping strategy is a scary proposition. Thankfully, recovery is possible and with the right help the person will learn new, healthier coping strategies that will slowly replace the eating disorder.

How you can support someone with an eating disorder

Giving emotional support is key and letting the person know you are always there for them to talk to when they are ready helps to keep the lines of communication open. Encouraging the person to talk to their friends and family is also very supportive.

On a practical level:

  • We are not in a position to diagnose but the GP can so encourage the person to make an appointment for a formal diagnosis and treatment plan.

  • If the person feels unable to make the call to the GP or to their loved ones, offer to do it for them.

  • Offer to go with them to talk to their line manager or HR if needed.

  • Search online for local support groups, charities and self-help books. Click to head to the national charities below:

  • ABC (Anorexia & Bulimia Care)

  • Beat

  • SEED

The impact of eating disorders in the workplace & the legislation

  • Beat conducted a survey of its members in January 2016 and there were 653 respondents: -

  • More than 30% of people felt they were stigmatised or discriminated against because of their eating disorder at work.

  • Nearly two out of five people said their employers’ impact on their recovery was ‘unhelpful’

  • Two thirds of people were unable to access either formal or informal support for their eating disorder at work.

  • 38% told us they were forced to or felt they had to use their annual leave to attend medical appointments for their eating disorder.

  • More than four out of five said they didn’t think or didn’t know whether their employers and colleagues were ‘informed’ about eating disorders.

Eating disorders are classed as a mental disability and disability is a Protected Characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 so lawfully, employers have duty of care towards their employees living with one.

Read blogs and stories written by people with lived experience of eating disorders on the Time to Change website HERE

Best wishes, Tricia


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