Advice for those suffering with eating disorders

Monday marks the last day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week which ran from February 26 to March 4. It aims to raise understanding and awareness around the complexities of disordered eating, which is a spectrum that goes beyond what we traditionally recognise as eating disorders, such as anorexia and binge/purge bulimia nervosa.

Other patients could present with exercise bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia (an obsession with ‘clean’ foods that seems all the more prevalent in the era of Instagram), a dependence on laxatives, manipulating their insulin if they’re diabetic, or suffer with an EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified).

They may struggle to find appropriate care because their behaviour does not fall within diagnostic guidelines with which medical professionals are familiar. That is why education is key, especially as it is estimated that almost 200,000 people in Ireland will be affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

As I’ve been very frank in discussing my own history of disordered eating, I am often approached by people seeking counsel because a loved one is showing signs of developing a disorder themselves. I’m not an expert, and I’m certainly not an adequate substitute for a doctor or a therapist, but I do have some advice that I hope might prove useful.

PREVENTION:

Prevention is better than a cure, particularly if you’re the parent of a teenager. Avoid talking about your weight or diets. Healthy eating and exercise are important, fad diets promising to help you lose seven pounds in seven days are not. Try not to use derogatory language to describe how you look — if you hate your body, you’re teaching your child to do the same.

Similarly, it’s unhelpful to comment on other people’s weights, whether they be friends or famous people whose ‘post-baby bikini body’ is splashed on the front page of your favourite magazine.

Speaking of magazines, avoid any that contain features such as ‘what the stars really weigh!’ or which give details of restrictive meal plans a reader can follow.

WARNING SIGNS:

Be on the lookout for the early signs that a loved one may be developing an eating disorder. They all begin with a diet, so be on the lookout for changes in eating patterns — making excuses to avoid having meals with the family, becoming a vegan/vegetarian, eliminating food groups. (Many people will stop eating meat for personal reasons, it’s only a warning sign in conjunction with other symptoms.)

Their personality might change, becoming more isolated or increasingly irritable. They may start to exercise excessively, and there may be traces of vomit or diarrhoea in the toilets.

Weight loss is an obvious red flag but it’s important to note that many sufferers maintain what appears to be a healthy or even overweight appearance, and their disorders can continue for years because people believe that eating disorder = severely underweight.

Men and people of colour can also go undiagnosed because of assumptions that eating disorders are the preserve of white, middle class teenage girls.

HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR LOVED ONE:

Firstly, don’t blame yourself. Eating disorders are complex and multifaceted, and it’s reductive to assume that it must be the ‘fault’ of the family. That being said, I cannot stress enough how important early intervention is. I can understand the desire to ignore the early signs in the hope it is just a phase and will go away of its own accord, but ask yourself, what would you do if a loved one was presenting with signs of cancer?

Would you hope that it would disappear overnight? Or would you seek medical advice immediately?

Please do the same when it’s a mental health issue. It’s also important to seek specialised care. As wonderful as GPs and psychotherapists are, eating disorders need to be dealt with in a very specific way. (If you’re in Munster, I cannot recommend the Eating Disorder Centre Cork highly enough.)

Books like Life Without Ed, Wintergirls, and Good Girls Do Swallow are helpful if you want some insight into what your loved one is going through.

FULL RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE:

If you have an eating disorder, I want to reassure you full recovery is possible. It doesn’t matter how long you have been suffering or how severe your symptoms are, if I can recover, then so can you.

There are a few things I found helpful in my recovery: I stopped weighing myself, I read books on mindfulness, I threw away clothes from when I was at my most unwell, I unfollowed anyone on social media that made me feel bad about my body. But mostly, I did the work. I went to therapy. I ate the food. It’s as simple and it’s as heartbreakingly difficult as that.

But I promise you, whatever you think the eating disorder is giving you, whatever comfort or pleasure or peace that you believe it delivers – it is but a lie. All an eating disorder will do is steal from you. Your time, your money, your friends, your hopes, your dreams. And, as eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue, it could quite possibly steal your future.

Don’t allow that to happen. Reach out. Ask for help. Refuse to listen to that little voice inside your head that tells you that in order to be worth something, you need to weigh nothing. It isn’t true. You are beautiful and you are powerful and you are more capable than you know.

- See bodywhys.ie

Lousie says

  • READ: Vagina: A Re-education by Dublin-born, London-based writer Lynn Enright. Providing women with vital information around their own bodies, this is both a fierce rallying cry and a cracking good read. I loved it.
  • DONATE: Check out The Homeless Period project on Facebook and see how you can donate sanitary products to homeless women and girls. This is such an important cause.

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