[Trigger warning: Feeding and Eating Disorders]

Between 2016 and 2020, the reported cases of eating disorders doubled in England. It doubled again in a year. What is driving this poor relationship with food and where can people seek support?

Our Relationship with Food

Food is fuel; our bodies need a balanced diet, rich in nutrients to function effectively. You know that, I know that, but we often make food choices based on temptation, calorie content, fitting in with others or feeling in control. For some, our feeding and eating choices carry a great deal of stigma and because of this our relationship with food can become unhealthy.

Food is often closely associated with body image and in our society, we are led to believe that we will be happier, more confident and attractive if we are slim. Images of skinny, smiling, beautiful people are everywhere. It’s easy to see how strictly controlling what we eat can be seen as a route to a better life.

For a growing number of people, this leads to food becoming closely linked to self-esteem. The pleasure of eating is replaced by a continuous stream of thoughts and judgements. For others, food can become a coping strategy where we rely on controlling our food intake to feel in control, particularly when going through negative life experiences.

The Reasons Food Relationships Turn Sour

Multiple reasons trigger an unhealthy relationship with food. It can be a means of trying to regain control through traumatic, abusive or neglectful events. It might relate to your genes or personality. The attitude of family members or friends can influence your attitude to food; from modelling behaviours to a negative reaction to comments about weight.

Although the causes of eating disorders are complex, it is commonly coupled with other signs of poor mental health. These include depression, self-harming and acute anxiety. Rebuilding a healthy relationship with food is reliant on having support to address the underlying emotional issues.

The Rise in Mental Health & Eating Disorders

An NHS survey* undertaken in 2017 and repeated in 2020 shows an alarming rise in eating disorders, with no age group, gender, race or socio-economic group being immune.

A Community Practitioner Report** highlights the number of young children using food control as a means of coping with emotional challenges as particularly notable. In 2016, 66 10-11-year-olds were hospitalised due to the severity of their eating disorder. This was up to 132 in 2020.

The report reveals that eating disorders in 6-16-year-olds increased 6.7% to 13% between 2016 and 2020. This sits alongside an increase in mental health disorders; from 11.6% to 17.4%. These young people also reported issues with sleeping and were twice as likely to miss more than 15 days of school.

The rapid rise in cases during the pandemic has been linked to social isolation. From video calls to social posts, our interactions were virtual, with a greater focus on appearance. There was minimal contact with family, friends and other support networks. People were anxious, lonely, sad and bored.

The organisation Freed have produced a video ‘Social media, food and me’ which shares how virtual interactions contributed to two people’s food obsessions. It explains how changing their online habits helped their recovery.

The Paradox of Eating Disorders

The starting point of restricting food is often a desire to be more attractive and happier. When this spirals into an eating disorder, the effects couldn’t be more opposite.

Deprived nutrients the body cannot operate properly. The individual becomes tired, weak, dizzy and unable to concentrate. Hair begins to thin whilst skin becomes dry and sallow. Abdominal pains are common. As obsessive behaviours increase, the individual often becomes anxious about social interactions. They cannot relinquish control, let go and have fun.

The starting point of binge eating is often coping with feelings of shame. Experiencing shame, particularly in early life has been associated with more severe binge eating symptoms. The feelings of shame can lead to binging to cope, but the binge itself increases distressing feelings– perpetuating a cycle of shame.

Support for Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 28 February until 6 March. Beat is using this opportunity to campaign for medical schools to include proper training on eating disorders. This article highlights why we need GPs and medical staff to be equipped to deal with this challenge. There are also call for eating disorder support to be more culturally sensitive*** to ethnic minority groups.

The earlier we can spot the signs and access support, the more likely that issues can be addressed, triggers removed and habits changed. It is possible to rebuild self-esteem and learn to see food as simply fuel, not something that dominates lives.

Specialist support services are offered by:

Young Mindshttps://www.youngminds.org.uk/young-person/my-feelings/eating-problems/

Freedhttps://freedfromed.co.uk/

Beat Eating Disordershttps://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/

National Eating Disorders Associationhttps://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/

If your organisation works with young people and you would like training on mental health and its connection to eating disorders, get in touch with Mindset: info@mindsetmentalhealth.co.uk.

*https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2021-follow-up-to-the-2017-survey

**https://www.communitypractitioner.co.uk/features/2021/07/eating-disorders-whats-behind-rise

***https://www.nationalelfservice.net/mental-health/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-culturally-adapt/