Eating Disorders Awareness Week is an opportunity to focus our attention on eating disorders, extending awareness through conversations and education. In this blog, Senior Clinical Advisor Dr Fiona Pienaar highlights the complexity of eating disorders and the importance of seeking help, along with how we provide a crucial means of connection to people with eating disorders through our text support service, Shout.
A clinical lens on eating disorders
Eating disorders are described by the NHS as ‘a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations. Unhealthy eating behaviours may include eating too much or too little or worrying about your weight or body shape.”
Eating disorders can affect anyone, but teenagers aged between 13 and 17 are mostly affected. According to the charity BEAT, it’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Around 25% of them are male.
The most common eating disorders are: Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). There are also Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) and the focus for EDAW 2024, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
At a Royal Society of Medicine event, ‘Eating disorders: Advances in science and treatment’, experts reported on the seemingly inexorable rise in eating disorders hospital admissions, particularly Anorexia Nervosa, which they noted was very hard to treat. The complexity of eating disorders was highlighted, specifically social, genetic and psychological risk factors. The presenters also drew attention to the increase in referrals, hypothesising that this could be attributed to greater awareness of eating disorders and improved service availability.
Eating disorders are associated with both psychiatric (depression, anxiety, self-harm - most common) and physical comorbidities (cardiovascular, reproductive health, musculoskeletal, gastro-intestinal). One of the great psychiatrists and neuroscientists of our times, Professor Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University), declared that he had ‘found no greater mystery than eating disorders, anywhere in psychiatry or medicine. None greater in all of biology’. He also noted that ‘though no drug can cure these two diseases (AN and BN), words can reach them as one human being reaches another.’ (Connections: The new science of emotions, Deisseroth, Penguin, 2022, pgs 161 and 163).