Living with an eating disorder is a miserable, lonely experience. For most people, food is one of life’s pleasures and an important social event. So if your feelings about food aren’t relaxed, an important part of life becomes extremely stressed. This stress may add to other enormous stresses that may have led to the eating disorder in the first place.
When someone you know and love develops an eating disorder, it’s easy to feel confused about what to do, and even threatened or angry.
Unfortunately, many health professionals are just as much at sea. Although eating disorders are increasing, we still know very little about their causes. Worse still, there aren’t any quick or easy treatments.
A few things are clear. People with eating disorders aren’t:
- Bad or being defiant
- Going through a ‘teenage phase’
- The result of poor or inadequate parenting
- The product of modern stresses and obsession with weight
- Able to snap out of it
What is known about eating disorders?
Many things about eating disorders aren’t fully understood, but we do know the following:
Eating disorders have been around for centuries
Diets don’t cause eating disorders, but research has shown young women who diet at a severe level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t and those who diet at a moderate level are five times more likely
Severe psychological problems, such as obsessive compulsive behaviour and depression, increase the risk of developing eating disorders
How common are they?
Eating disorders include a range of different conditions where people have an abnormal attitude towards food, altered appetite control and unhealthy eating habits that affect their health and ability to function normally. The most common form of disordered eating is obesity, which affects more than one in ten people.
Bulimia nervosa, or binge eating and purging, is twice as common as anorexia.
Men and boys also have eating disorders, but less often than girls or women.
What are the causes?
Families often blame themselves, but they shouldn’t. None of the research shows much difference between the ways that families of anorexics work compared with other families.
The causes of eating disorders are complex. They’re probably the result of several factors, including:
A genetic tendency
Learned responses and habits, especially to stress
Cultural and social pressures, for example to be slim
Psychological factors, such as perfectionism and lack self-esteem, although it’s not known whether this is a cause or effect of disorders
What can families do?
The first thing is to accept that there’s no quick fix – treating eating disorders usually involves years of hard work. During this time, there can be huge tension and communication can be terrible, but families can play a critical role in helping their relative through the worst.
Families need expert help for this, so talk to your doctor or contact one of the organisations given in our links.
How to help:
1. Help the person affected recognise they have a problem. Try to avoid head-to-head confrontation because it will only end in rebellion, tears and failure.
2. Be prepared to raid all your reserves of optimism and enthusiasm.
3. Try to remain sympathetic, no matter how bad the person’s outer expression of their inner turmoil becomes.
4. Don’t forget other members of the family and their needs, and don’t let your own life, career and enjoyments become swamped or you’ll become unable to give support.
5. Keep communication going with the patient and health professionals. What your loved one needs is a cohesive team supporting them.
It’s a long road to recovery. After five years, about half of people with eating disorders have recovered, although many remain preoccupied with food, eating and their weight for many more years.
Advice and support
For information about national organisations, visit the Women’s Health section on eating disorders.
Source: BBC Health