The average eating disorder sufferer waits for three and a half years before seeking treatment, and the general public is often oblivious as to the signs of killer illnesses. Here’s why signs and symptoms aren’t always as you’d assume…

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It’s thought that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, yet new research carried out by YouGov and commissioned by Eating Disorders Charity BEAT to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week  indicates that many of us are unable to recognise signs and symptoms of common eating disorders, with many sufferers themselves not identifying the markers of illness.

As chef and author  Ruby Tandoh , a former eating disorders sufferer, highlighted on Lorraine’s ITV show this morning, many of us, medical professionals included, solely associate a thin, frail frame and emaciated appearance with serious eating disorders, despite the fact that, according to studies, 80-85 per cent of people with eating disorders are not underweight. This stereotype is confirmed by YouGov’s most recent survey of 2,108 UK adults, 62 per cent of whom responded that weight loss and being thin were more significant signs of eating disorders than any other.

While one in three of us can’t recognise any signs or symptoms of eating disorders at all, of those surveyed who did identify possible markers, 79 per cent were unable to name any psychological symptoms, which can include low self-esteem, low confidence and distorted body image . These psychological indicators almost always appear first in the development of an eating disorder, therefore recognising them early on could be the key to life saving intervention, especially considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with 20 per cent of anorexia sufferers dying prematurely.

There’s currently an average of a three and half year gap between a sufferer falling ill and starting treatment, and BEAT’s current campaign is focusing on speeding this up by way of encouraging the government and the NHS to promote greater awareness of common symptoms and signs of eating disorders. There are some 68 potential manifestations of eating disorders according to BEAT, but awareness of some of the following symptoms could save lives, as they tend to be the first indications of an eating disorder. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Developing obsessions about food
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Having distorted beliefs about body size
  • Being tired or struggling to concentrate
  • Disappearing to the toilet after meals
  • Starting to exercise excessively

Beat Chief Executive Andrew Radford emphasises that increasing awareness and understanding of eating disorders will lead to more positive change for sufferers, their families and health service as a whole:

“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and when people are treated quickly after falling ill, they are much more likely to have a fast and sustained recovery. Today, we are asking that the Government and NHS invest in measures to increase awareness of the early signs and symptoms, heightened awareness will not only improve outcomes for those suffering but also prove cost effective for the services treating patients.”

Challenging stigma and reframing how we think about eating disorders will require cultural change, but the sooner that we empower the public and sufferers with knowledge and confidence to talk about symptoms and signs, as we are doing in the case of other mental illnesses such as depression , the sooner that recovery prognosis’ and services improve. Ruby herself told the BBC  earlier this month that, despite suffering from disordered eating from the age of 15 until her early twenties, she didn’t even realise she was ill, and while now recovered, earlier diagnosis, support and treatment could have prevented severe mental and physical torment for herself and many women and men also suffering from eating disorders in the UK. BEAT’s hashtag for Eating Disorder Awareness week is #WhyWait, which couldn’t be more apt- let’s get the ball rolling on fuller, faster recovery.

Here’s how to support  BEAT’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week , from a single tweet to filming an awareness video

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