Written by Sophie Conant
It is estimated that the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders in the general population is approximately 8.4% for women and 2.2% for men (1), with roughly 1.25 million people diagnosed with an eating disorder in the UK currently (3).
Eating disorders are complex psychological illnesses, which are not simply about weight dissatisfaction, but are often a coping mechanism for managing emotions, life experience or change. There are many different types of eating disorders, and anyone of any age, gender or ethnicity can be affected by one.
Despite the common stereotypes, less than 6% of people with an eating disorder diagnosis are ‘underweight’ (2). This highlights the importance of thorough assessment by health professionals as you cannot “see” if someone is struggling with their eating or unhealthy behaviours such as purging or compulsive exercise.
Why early intervention is important
If left untreated, eating disorders can have lasting effects on the brain, body, and a person’s behaviour. It is therefore highly important that treatment is accessed as soon as possible. Research has shown that the sooner someone receives treatment, the shorter the recovery time and the time spent under services.
However, the continuing rise of eating disorders is putting increasing pressures on service capacity, meaning that early intervention is becoming increasingly harder to achieve – a fact which is only exacerbating the problem. This sharp increase became particularly prominent during the pandemic – the eating disorder charity, Beat, reported a 173% increase in need for support between February 2020 and January 2021 (4).
The importance of early intervention has been highlighted in several studies. It has been shown that shorter periods of undetected illness are associated with better outcomes in relation to symptoms, and recovery and relapse rates (5). For example, it has been found that those who receive support within 3 years of the onset of their illness have a much greater likelihood of achieving full recovery (6).
Early intervention is only made possible by early detection of the early signs of an eating disorder. During this years’ Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW), the eating disorder charity, Beat, are focusing their campaign on improving and implementing more comprehensive training in eating disorders in medical schools. As GPs are usually the first port of call for anyone suffering with an eating disorder to seek help, it is vitally important that doctors receive training so that they are able to spot the early warning signs and can make a referral before the eating disorder becomes too severe.
As eating disorders are mental illnesses, it is important that intervention strategies not only treat the physical symptoms, but also the psychological symptoms in order for full recovery to be achieved. This is made more possible by implementation of early intervention strategies.
Eating disorder red flags
There are numerous signs and symptoms of eating disorders, and their presentation can differ from person to person. Risk factors and signs of eating disorders can be split into three categories (7):
Feeling preoccupied with your body weight.
Purging (making yourself sick) after eating.
Constantly thinking about food.
Eating in secret.
Using food as a means of comfort.
Avoiding eating even when hungry.
Feeling guilty about skipping a workout.
Exercising even when sick or injured.
Primarily using exercise as a way to change the way you look.
Becoming anxious about being unable to exercise.
Fear of gaining weight.
Avoiding social commitments because of how you feel about your appearance.
Letting your weight affect your self-worth.
Constantly thinking about your weight or appearance
A more detailed list of eating disorder red flags can be found on How far is too far?.
The next steps
If you think that you or someone you know are suffering from an eating disorder don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Spotting the early warning signs and accessing support as soon as possible is important in preventing it from becoming more serious.
If you are unsure about how to support a friend who is struggling, then more information about support can be found on Feed your Instinct.
If you think that you may be suffering from an eating disorder, then the first port of call is going to see your GP. Although there is a current campaign for increased GP awareness, not all GPs may be aware of eating disorder symptoms. When taking hat first step to visit the GP and talk about your concerns, it may be helpful to have some prompts with you. Beat has put together a page that explains what should happen during your visit and how is best to approach it, including a pdf that aims to help you with your first steps in accessing help from the GP or helping someone you know.
With the prevalence of eating disorders increasing, it is more important than ever that early intervention is received as soon as possible. Raising consciousness of eating disorder red flags is essential in ensuring that more people can access much needed support early on. No one should have to suffer in silence.
Head over to Beat to find out more about this years EDAW campaign.
If you need support or help to improve your relationship with food please reach out and connect with us by completing an enquiry form.
Sophie Conant is a 2nd year Dietetics student at the University of Nottingham. Her own journey to finding food freedom has given her a passion to help others to do the same. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, climbing and cooking for friends.
 Yang Y et al, 2021, Beyond Refeeding: The Effect of Including a Dietitian in Eating Disorder Treatment, A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2021, 13(12), 4490. Available here.
 ANAD, 2021, Eating Disorder Statistics, Available at: Eating Disorder Statistics | General & Diversity Stats | ANAD [Accessed 19 February 2022]
 Beat, 2022, Statistics for Journalists, Available at: Statistics for Journalists - Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk) [Accessed 19 February 2022]
 BBC News, 2021, Eating Disorders: MPs call for government action amid pandemic rise, Available at: Eating disorders: MPs call for government action amid pandemic rise - BBC News [Accessed 24 February 2022]
 Schmidt U, Brown A, McClellond J, Glennon D and Mountford V, 2016, Will a Comprehensive, Person-Centered, Team-Based Early Intervention Approach to First Episode Illness Improve Outcomes in Eating Disorders?, The International journal of eating disorders Vol. 49.4
 National Eating Disorder Association, 2022, Why Early Intervention for Eating Disorders is Essential, Available at: Why Early Intervention for Eating Disorders is Essential, National Eating Disorders Association [Accessed 24 February 2022]
 How far is too far?, 2022, Available at: https://www.howfaristoofar.org.au/ [Accessed 20 February 2022]
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of eating disorder dietitians. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.
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