Ask the expert: “How do I know if someone is suffering from an eating disorder?”

01 March 2020

Unfortunately, there have always been many myths and stigmas around eating disorders which can discourage those that are suffering to come forward for support in their recovery. With two major eating disorder charities running awareness weeks this month; National Eating Disorders (NED) and BEAT Eating Disorders, Senior Accredited Psychotherapist, Mrs Barbara Hart, answers some common questions.

How common are eating disorders?
Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder*. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. Anyone, no matter what their age, gender, or background, can develop one.

So does that mean men can suffer from them too?
Yes, studies show that up to a quarter of sufferers are male. Many men go undiagnosed because of the stigma around eating disorders.

I've heard of Anorexia, but what other eating disorders are there?
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of eating disorder sufferers do not have anorexia. Here are some of the common disorders: 

  • Binge eating disorder is a serious illness where those affected experience a loss of control and eat large quantities of food on a regular basis. This can affect anyone of any age, gender or background. Those with binge eating disorder may or may not be overweight. It is more common in adults than younger people, often starting in middle age.
  • Bulimia can affect anyone of any age, gender or background. Those suffering from this illness are caught in a cycle of eating large quantities of food, followed by compensating for their over-eating by vomiting, taking laxatives, fasting or excessively exercising. Those suffering from bulimia may be within the normal weight range or may be overweight.
  • Anorexia Nervosa is a serious illness can affect anyone of any age, gender or background. As well as restricting the amount of food eating, this may also be accompanied by excessive exercise to work off the food eating. Some people also experience binge eating and purging.

So, if I know someone suffering from an eating disorder, how can I help?
If you are concerned that a friend or family member might have an eating disorder, it can be really difficult to raise your concerns with them. However, the sooner someone can get the treatment, the greater their chance of a full and sustained recovery. Often, people worry that they’ll say the wrong thing or that they are intruding on their loved one’s business. However, eating disorders thrive on secrecy and many people who have since recovered or in recovery say that breaking the silence is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t think so at the time.

Before talking to the person, it is always a good idea to try to read up on eating disorders so that you can approach them with more knowledge and understanding. Check out the Beat Eating Disorders guide for friends and family.

I'm worried I might have an eating disorder, what should I do?
If you are at all worried that you have an eating disorder, then it is important that you seek support. Your first port of call would be to speak to your GP who will then assess the severity and also refer you to specialised professional support. Speaking about your eating disorder can feel daunting and so perhaps it would be helpful to think about whether you could potentially speak to a trusted friend or family member. You could also ask them to accompany you to speak to your GP.  

Beat Eating Disorders has a wealth of information if you are worried that you may have an eating disorder. 

Is recovery possible from an eating disorder?
Recovery from eating disorders is possible. Research* shows that around 45% of those with Bulimia make a full recovery, 27% improve considerably and 23% suffer chronically. Research also suggests that of those affected by Anorexia, 46% fully recover, 33% show improvement and 20% suffer chronically. 

*Figures taken from

Barbara Hart specialises in working with those affected by eating disorders and challenging eating patterns. Barbara supports those to make sustainable changes to eating habits and encourages wellbeing through cultivating a healthier relationship with food.


The content in this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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