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What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses – they are not a lifestyle choice or a “phase”. They can cause significant harm, but they can be treated, and at Orri we know that with the right treatment recovery is possible. 

There is no one single cause of an eating disorder, rather, a combination of social, genetic and psychological factors that can contribute. Many professionals consider them to be a maladaptive coping mechanism: disordered thoughts and actions that lead to compulsions that overtake daily life. 

Negative life experiences – for instance, a traumatic experience – can play a role in the development of an eating disorder. The trauma may lead to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and stress, and the eating disorder serves a purpose to reduce those levels of anxiety and stress in the short-term, as the individual channels their energy into a preoccupation with food and eating. 

“An instinct that something is not quite right is usually a good indicator of there being a problem.” – Kerrie Jones, Clinical Director

What we know:

  • Eating disorders are most common in individuals between the ages of 14-25 years old 
  • Sufferers are commonly high achievers, and often very high-functioning in their illness 
  • According to a study (Fairburn & Harrison 2003), 80-85% of people with eating disorders are not underweight 

General symptoms: 

  • Isolating yourself from others 
  • Preoccupation with food and eating 
  • Low confidence, low self-esteem and anxiety – particularly when eating in front of others 
  • Fear of gaining weight or pursuit of thinness and excessive focus on body weight 
  • Distorted perception of body shape or weight 
  • Inability to eat intuitively or reluctance to respond to hunger cues 
  • Other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder 

Eating disorders – despite how they can present- are not about food. Our team explains.

It’s important to remember that eating disorders manifest in different ways. They are unique to the individual and anyone can develop one.

This means that there is no right or wrong way to have “a problem” and you may not “tick all the boxes” of a diagnosis. That said, they are typically characterised by eating habits that disrupt a person’s mental, physical and emotional health. 

Because of this diversity, Orri’s approach to treating eating disorders is entirely dependent upon the needs of the individual. Our stepped approach provides people with the right amount of support at different points in their journey and allows for a smooth transition back to into everyday life.

How do I know if I have a problem. And when should I reach out for support?

Don’t suffer alone – reach out for support 

The term “early intervention” means getting help and support as soon as possible, when you need it. The sooner you get help, the better your chances are of full and sustained recovery. Research tells us that people should be treated within the first three years of their illness, yet it takes on average almost three years for people to recognise their symptoms and seek help. 

Despite how it presents, eating disorders are not all about food. 

Rather, food is a symptom of other complex and often deep-rooted issues. Eating disorders develop to block out or control overwhelming emotions. Food is the indicator of someone’s emotional experience of their life.

Eating disorders disrupt a person’s thoughts and mood 

Sufferers are often unable to function in key areas of life, including school, work, personal relationships and social environments. At Orri, we treat individuals suffering with co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety and depression, so they can reconnect with the joys of day-to-day life. 

The isolation and secrecy that often comes with eating disorders can keep a person trapped within their illness

This makes it harder for people on the outside to identify the problem until it gets to a point of crisis.

We see eating disorders as a “family illness”

This means that we understand how the eating disorder does not affect the sufferer alone.

We are aware that all too often family members can feel alienated when information about their loved one is withheld. Orri advocates support for the whole family, meaning that no one is left alone in their experience of an eating disorder.

Are you a parent? Here's our advice

As a family member or carer, it’s important to remember that there’s no one single cause. Rather, a combination of social, psychological and genetic factors that can contribute. Additionally, whilst eating disorders can cause significant harm, they are treatable and recovery is possible. 

Research has shown that the earlier someone accesses specialist support, the faster and more sustained their recovery will be. Our treatment is all about ensuring people can progress in recovery whilst maintaining a connection to their lives outside treatment – be it work, university or school. By intervening early, their lives are less likely to be disrupted. 

Click here to learn more about how we support parents and carers.

Concerned you have an eating disorder? Answer the S.C.O.F.F questionnaire  

S.C.O.F.F a screening questionnaire used by GPs to identify eating disorders without having to ask invasive or triggering questions.

Though not diagnostic, a score of 2 or more positive answers means you should seek support from a professional. 

  • Do you ever make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full? 
  • Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat? 
  • Have you recently lost more than One stone in a three-month period? 
  • Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin? 
  • Would you say that Food dominates your life? 

There are many eating disorder diagnoses.

Anorexia

Anorexia is a complex mental illness, but it is treatable, and with the right support recovery is possible.

Common Anorexia symptoms include:

  • Food and/or exercising has started to dictate life decisions
  • Preparing meals, and meals themselves, have become a challenge, including food ‘rituals’ in the preparation or eating of food
  • Tightly regulated and restricted eating
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Preoccupation with size and body image
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem and insecurity
  • Perfectionism, often at the expense of relationships
  • Co-occurring conditions, such as depression and anxiety

Learn more about Anorexia by clicking here.

Anorexia Athletica

Anorexia Athletica is a sub-type of the eating disorder, Anorexia. It references a compulsive obsession with exercise alongside symptoms related to restricting food intake and, often, maintaining a low weight with regimented eating.

The diagnosis was first used in the 1980s but has only recently come into common vernacular and is sometimes referred to as “compulsive exercise”, “hypergymnasia” or “sports anorexia”.

People with Anorexia Athletica have a tendency to focus on athletic performance and measure their self-worth against other people’s performance and body types. That being said, there are often complex emotional underlying causes that force an individual to look outside of themselves to cope.

Click here to learn more about symptoms and treatment for Anorexia Athletica.

Bulimia

Bulimia is a complex mental illness, but it is treatable and with the right treatment, recovery is possible.

There’s no “right way” to have Bulimia, however, there are shared characteristics and behavioural patterns that help in the diagnosis of the illness. Often, people suffering with Bulimia eat large quantities of food – called “binging” – and then purge the calories from their system. Purging doesn’t always take the form of self-induced vomiting — a person can also rid their system of calories by fasting, exercising compulsively, or taking laxatives or diuretics.

For people suffering Bulimia, eating becomes a means of emotional release. It provides relief in times of stress but the subsequent purging, which satisfies their overwhelming urge to remove the calories, often leaves the individual feeling guilty and ashamed. The person feels a complete loss of control and suffers a good deal of stress as a result.

Learn more here.

Binge Eating Disorder

There’s no “right way” to have BED, however, there are shared characteristics and behavioural patterns that help in the diagnosis of the illness. 

BED is not about the food, rather, the symbolic act of binging can be understood as an attempt to negate or interrupt overwhelming negative emotions. People often talk of entering a trance-like state when binging, or, becoming preoccupied with planning their binges as they go about their everyday lives in work or education.

Because of the secretive nature of the illness, and the fact that many people with BED maintain a “normal” weight, the illness often persists whilst someone is otherwise high-functioning in other areas of their lives. 

Learn more here.

ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)

ARFID is a new eating disorder diagnosis referenced in the DSM-5. Previously coined “Selective Eating”, it involves limitations and/or restrictions around food, particularly around the intake of certain types of food or certain amounts.

Unlike other eating disorder diagnoses (like Anorexia, Bulimia or Binge Eating Disorder) it doesn’t typically involve distress around body image or a pursuit of thinness. Rather, it is classified by a rejection of certain foods often due to a sensitivity in taste, texture, smell, appearance or temperature.

ARFID can severely impact someone’s physical and mental health. Someone suffering with ARFID may struggle with socialising and eating around others, and suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies, weight loss in adults and stunted growth in children.

Whilst there’s no single cause, it may be that someone had a distressing experience whilst eating food – such as choking or vomiting – that harmed their relationship to food. Recently, there has been links made with Autism due to sensory sensitivity.

Learn more here.

Orthorexia

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that is characterised by symptoms of obsessive behaviour towards food, often in pursuit of a “healthy” diet.

Those suffering with Orthorexia may be extremely selective and restrictive with their food and food types. They may categorise food as “good” or “bad” and attempt to eat only “pure” foods whilst following a seemingly “perfect” diet.

The diagnosis was first coined in 1998 and doesn’t yet have formal diagnostic criteria. As such, it can be difficult to diagnose people with Orthorexia, especially as we know there’s no “one way” to have an eating disorder.

Read more about Orthorexia here.

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