Eating Disorders: Recognising Behaviours and Supporting Students
What do Freddie Flintoff, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Russel Brand, Kesha and Zayn Malik have in common? They've all struggled with eating disorders or disordered eating at some point in their lives. Eating disorders are a widespread problem across the UK and worldwide, research conducted by National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), shows that between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with an average age of onset for anorexia nervosa between 16-17 years old. Often thought of as an issue affecting women, it’s thought that at least 25% of sufferers are men sadly, this perception can mean that male eating disorders aren’t recognised and can be overlooked. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders and the earlier that eating disorder treatment is sought, the better the sufferer’s chance of recovery. In the UK, it is thought that nearly 2 million people have been diagnosed with young people between the ages of 14 and 25 most at risk.
Jenni Tomei - Nutritional Therapist, Personal Trainer, Eating Disorder Coach, and member of National Centre for Eating Disorders - tells us there are three key points for everyone to be aware of:
- An eating disorder is not actually primarily about food.
- Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder.
- People can and do recover.
Jenny has provided some information to help us understand what eating disorders are, the people they affect, and ways to identify if a student is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating.
What is an eating disorder?
The term eating disorder refers to a potentially life-threatening condition, that is characterised by disturbances in eating, emotional and psychological distress, and physical symptoms. Eating disorders involve a person’s need to have control over their body weight and shape and can be seen as a way of coping with emotional distress, or as a symptom of other underlying issues. The most common types of eating disorder are:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Binge Eating disorder (BED)
A person can also be diagnosed with OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) when their symptoms don’t exactly fit those expected for any of the specific disorders listed above. OSFED is an umbrella term and those diagnosed may experience different symptoms including:
- compulsive eating
- ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder)
- types of anorexia and bulimia which are not severe
- Night Eating Syndrome
- Orthorexia, which is thought to be similar to anorexia
Who Can Develop an Eating Disorder?
No single cause of eating disorders has been identified, but there are many risk factors that increase the likelihood that a person will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life. There are six at-risk groups that can be remembered using the A-F memory tool.
A = AGE. Although most eating disorders develop during adolescence, the mean onset age of anorexia in girls is around 17 or 18, whereas for boys it is more likely to be around 13 or 14, eating disorders can also continue into adulthood.
B = BULLYING AND SOCIAL ISOLATION. Children who are bullied are at much greater risk of developing an eating disorder, with studies even showing that 60% of those affected by eating disorders cited bullying as a major contributing trigger.
C = CULTURAL CHANGE. Acculturation (the process of assimilating to a different culture) can increase the likelihood of a child or teen developing an eating disorder.
D = DIABETICS. Coined diabulimia, this specific eating disorder involves skipping insulin injections to control weight.
E = EMOTIONAL DISORDERS. It is important to remember that eating disorders are not primarily about food but is more of a coping mechanism for emotional distress.
F = FITNESS ENTHUSIASTS AND ATHLETES. Involvement in competitive sport or dance, where being particularly lean or muscular is seen to be important for performance, leads to a greater risk of eating disorders.
Early Signs of an Eating Disorder
While there are some obvious signs of eating disorders, there are also other signs that could indicate an eating disorder. Use the acronym ‘DOSE’ to keep an eye on any possible indicators of eating disorders.
DISTRACTED AND DRAINED - Are they having difficulty concentrating in lessons? Have you noticed a change in attitude towards work? Do they seem tired or lethargic? Do they seem faint or light-headed when they stand up?
SOCIAL WITHDRAWAL - Do they seem withdrawn in lessons, and reluctant to get involved in discussions? Are they avoiding asking you or other pupils for help? Are they spending less time with their usual group of friends? Are they always ‘working’ or ‘busy’ at lunch, rather than eating?
OBSESSIVE AND PERFECTIONISTIC - Do they set unreasonably high personal academic standards, and get very distressed if they fall short? Are they particularly anxious about getting anything wrong, or not living up to expectations? Are they in need of a lot of reassurance?
ERRATIC BEHAVIOURS - Do they seem increasingly sensitive, touchy and emotional? Are they having difficulty sitting still - e.g. constantly jiggling their legs, getting up from their desk at every opportunity, and making frequent trips to the bathroom?
For more information on eating disorders and early intervention methods to help students struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating, register for our free safeguarding webinar “The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Eating Disorders in Children and Young People“ Thursday 1st July 1 pm (UK time). In the session, Nutritional Therapist and Eating Disorder Coach, Jenni Tomei will discuss different aspects of how the pandemic has affected children and young people with eating disorders and will provide some practical guidance on how to address the issue with early intervention strategies within schools.
All participants will also receive a bonus eating disorder tool kit provided by Jenny. This toolkit is full of information on eating disorders, how to recognise an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviours, how to approach a student who you believe is suffering from an eating disorder and suggestions on how to broach the topic with their parents.
Further Help and advice
Beat Eating Disorders is a charity that provides helplines and support to those that are struggling with eating disorders.
Anorexia and Bulimia Care is another charity that also provides support, training and advice to those caring for sufferers and provides preventative education.
The National Centre for Eating Disorders provides help, advice and training for those who want to provide support for those with eating disorders.
Written by Georgia Latief