How To Spot An Eating Disorder In a Friend Or Relative

How To Spot An Eating Disorder In a Friend Or Relative

by Dr Emma Gray - 14th October, 2014

An Eating Disorder (e.g. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder) is a secretive disorder, for a number of reasons. Firstly because at the root of an eating disorder is the sufferers chronic and enduring sense of inadequacy or low self esteem; they do not feel that they deserve help, support or attention and feel like they are to blame for the situation that they find themselves in. Secondly, the eating disorder focuses a sufferer’s attention on their body, its weight and its shape and leads them to believe that this is also inadequate, inferior and sometimes disgusting.

The self disgust that this engenders leads the sufferer to withdraw from others in an attempt to hide or disguise themselves. Thirdly, the ends that a someone with an eating disorder has to go to, to manipulate their weight and shape (e.g. bingeing, self induced vomiting, misuse of laxative, excessive exercise, restriction of calorie intake) leave them feeling either ashamed of their behaviour and/or afraid that a well meaning relative will prevent them from engaging in it and achieving their goal of weight/shape change, so they keep it a secret.

However, an eating disorder is a very serious disorder with the sufferer being vulnerable to both psychological and physical complications. An eating disorder will not resolve itself, in fact over time, if left untreated, an eating disorder will become worse, so sufferers must be supported to get help. The list of symptoms below will help you to spot an eating disorder in a friend or relative:

1. Increased preoccupation in food.

The life of someone with an eating disorder will evolve around food, counting calories, planning meals, hoarding food etc. When restricting their calorie intake a sufferer may spend a large part of their day preparing food for others and/or trying to convince others to eat the food that would like to eat but can’t allow themselves to. When they do eat they will eat either very slowing or very quickly and will often engage in a number of eating related rituals during the course of a meal (e.g. grouping food into colours, eating things in a particular order, cutting food in a particular way). They will also become quickly annoyed if someone questions them about their eating or tries to interfere with their rituals.

2. Bingeing and Purging.

If someone is bingeing (frantically consuming large quantities of food in secret) and/or purging (e.g. self induced vomiting, misusing laxatives), you may see them eat very little, yet they will not appear to be losing weight and they may disappear to the bathroom frequently during/after mealtimes.

3. Weighing

Those with an eating disorder will develop an unhealthy relationship with their weight and will either weigh themselves frequently (e.g. multiple times during the day) or avoid this altogether.

4. Emotional changes

An individual with an eating disorder is also likely to experience a range of co morbid mental health problems including: anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and self harm.

5. Physical changes

Due to the disruption in nutritional intake the following physical changes are often seen in someone suffering from an eating disorder: sleep disturbance, dizziness, headaches, hypersensitivity to noise and light, swelling in the feet and legs caused by water retention, hair loss, dental problems, reduced tolerance for cold temperatures.

If you suspect that someone you know maybe be suffering from an eating disorder, the team at The British CBT & Counselling Service will be able to advise you on the next best step.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleague once described me as natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


Read more about my approach to counselling here...


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