Learn how to spot somebody with an eating disorder and offer help


People assume that you must to be stick-thin to have an eating disorder. That is far from the truth, as around 80% of eating disorder patients are not underweight (Beat survey 2003). The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder with around 6.4% of UK adults showing symptoms (anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk). People typically associate them with teenage females which can make it hard for male sufferers to be acknowledged.

Seeing the signs

University life can be stressful at the best of times, with little control over assignments, workload and social pressures. Juggling lectures, societies and jobs mean that a typical eating pattern is rare for the average student, so it can be even harder to notice if friends or coursemates are showing symptoms. But here are the most common symptoms you can look out for:

  • Excuses for not eating or why they don’t want to eat with you

  • Seeming withdrawn and distracted

  • Eating a lot of food very fast

  • Regular trips to the bathroom

  • Lying about where they have been or what they’ve been doing

  • A dramatic weight loss or weight gain

Of course, there is no one type fits all, and everyone who suffers from an eating disorder does so for different reasons and expresses it differently.

Approaching someone

The most important thing to remember if you decide to approach someone you think has an eating disorder is to remember that it is a mental illness and, quite often, they can’t help or realise what they are doing. Try and find a time to talk to them in a safe and quiet place, away from meal times, where they would feel comfortable talking to you.

Don’t make assumptions about them or tell them you think they are doing something wrong, just show your concern and listen to what they have to say. If you talk to them and they are confident that they are okay and don’t need help, accept that and only take action if things continue to get worse.

If things do continue to get worse, maybe talk to someone else about it like their parent or carer, just to express concern and if you require more support, ring the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677.

I think one of the most important things is to remember that you can’t treat or force them to get help, you can only be there as someone they can turn to for support, or if they need someone to listen. In the long term, if they do go to a GP and seek help, it may be your kind words and concern that helps them through the treatment process.

Any more advice for someone concerned or suffering? Let me know in the comments below...

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