There are so many myths and misunderstandings about eating disorders. To mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week, here are 20 things you ought to know about eating disorders. How many of them did you know?
1. Eating disorders can happen to happy, well-adjusted people living in happy, well-adjusted families.
2. More people have eating disorders in the western world than have green eyes.
3. Eating disorders are not always the result of a deliberate diet. People sometimes develop them when they lose weight because of an illness or even a well-intentioned fast.
4. An eating disorder is a brain disorder to which some people are genetically predisposed. It is especially risky for those people to lose weight, but they usually don’t know this until it’s too late.
5. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental health condition.
6. One in five people with anorexia die prematurely of the disorder, usually of organ failure, typically of heart failure. One in five.
7. Anorexia is not “all about control”. It is not a response to controlling parents. It is not a severe case of vanity. It is a brain disorder.
8. When someone develops an eating disorder, their brain chemistry and structure change. You cannot reason them out of this.
9. By far the most effective treatment for an eating disorder is food. Therapy can help, and may be essential, but it is food that heals the brain.
10. People can develop an eating disorder without becoming dangerously – or even, in some cases, significantly – underweight.
11. Women can have an eating disorder, including anorexia, without ever losing their periods.
12. Recovery from an eating disorder is not about waiting for the sufferer to want to get better.
13. The single worst thing you can do for someone developing an eating disorder is “not to make meals a battleground”. They need to eat, and this can be a difficult, nasty, vicious and bloody battle.
14. If someone has been starving and starts to eat properly again, they can suffer from refeeding syndrome, which is dangerous and can be fatal. Restoring a proper diet should be done gradually and with medical advice.
15. When someone has been starved and starts to gain weight again, the weight goes on first around the middle to protect the organs. It will redistribute, but only after many months. This sucks.
16. At least 10% of people with eating disorders are boys or men. That number is rising.
17. Just because someone with an eating disorder has regained weight does not mean they are fully better. Mending the brain can take months or even years after weight restoration.
18. A shocking number of mental health experts only have a passing understanding of eating disorders.
19. Swift treatment makes a huge difference to the chances of recovery, but it can take months to see a specialist. Those months can make the difference between life and death.
20. Recovery is possible. Not everyone with an eating disorder recovers completely, and the risk of relapse is huge, but it is not necessarily a life sentence. People can – and do – make a complete, full and lasting recovery.
If you are worried about someone who has or may be developing an eating disorder, or if you have one yourself or are concerned about your eating habits, there are lots of resources to help and support you. The UK charity B-eat is excellent for general information and helplines, and if you are a parent or carer of someone with an eating disorder there are brilliant resources and wise advice on the FEAST online forum, Around the Dinner Table.