Eating Disorders Awareness Week

February 21 marks the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week and drop-in sessions, Q&A calls and seminars will be happening across the country.

It is estimated that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder - if you are concerned that a loved one may be suffering, here are some of the signs you should look out for and how you can help.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week
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The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating (or emotional over-eating). Each condition affects the sufferer physically, mentally and socially and the effects can be devastating.

Though much has been made of the social pressures associated with the skinny supermodels and stick-thin celebs in the media, there are many other factors that could cause an eating disorder.

The NHS advises that, as well as criticism over eating habits, body shape or weight, specific experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of a loved one, as well as stress at work or school can trigger an eating disorder.

Those with an obsessive personality (particularly those with low self-esteem) may also be at risk.

It can be difficult to know if a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, due to the secretive nature of the condition. Most will try to hide their obsession and may become defensive when the subject is broached, often denying there is anything wrong. But there are signs to look out for.

As obvious as it sounds, an obsession with body weight and a distorted body image are clues to a developing problem.
Rapid and unexplained weight loss or gain is often a sign of a disorder. An anorexia sufferer may continually make excuses to avoid meal times or pick at their food.

Similarly those with a binge eating disorder tend to feel ashamed of their eating habits and may feel uncomfortable eating in the company of others, often insisting on eating alone.

Bulimia is harder to spot as the sufferer rarely shows such dramatic weight loss, but regular trips to the bathroom immediately after mealtimes could be a sign of purging.

In general, an eating disorder will often result in mood swings, irritability and a change in social behaviour.

What to do
Broaching the subject with a loved one whom you suspect may have developed an eating disorder should be done with great care. The majority of sufferers feel their condition gives them control and they may be reluctant to let go as a result.

Before you tackle the problem, prepare what you will say. Be careful not to sound judgmental or accusatory and instead focus on their feelings. Talking about their appearance, even if it is complimentary, is to be avoided. Instead be positive about other achievements that don't involve food.

At mealtimes, try to avoid tension – stay light-hearted and make conversation so that food does not become a focus. And try to let the sufferer know that there is outside help available, as many will have tried and failed to correct the problem themselves.

Getting help
If they are open to offers of help, there are a number of organisations that provide support and advice. It might be best to begin with your GP who will be able to advise where to find the help both the sufferer and their family need.

Alternatively, visit UK charity BEAT where there is plenty of information about the resources available.