We all make decisions about what and when to eat depending on a variety of factors such as the time of day, levels of hunger, nutritional considerations, personal preferences, etc. However, people whose eating routines are determined predominantly by other factors (e.g. an intense fear of becoming overweight) are classed as suffering from eating disorders, and they risk seriously damaging their health as a result.
Eating disorders can take a variety of forms:
- eating too much;
- eating too little;
- using harmful ways to get rid of calories (e.g. inducing vomiting or taking laxatives to encourage the emptying of the bowels).
The three most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexianervosa: This condition is characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight, which will make sufferers try to keep their weight as low as possible by denying themselves food. The condition is more common in women than men and usually develops during teenage years.
- Bulimia:Bulimia is more common than anorexia nervosa and the vast majority of sufferers are women. The condition is characterised by consuming large amounts of food in a short time then deliberately being sick or using laxatives to empty the bowels.
- Binge eating: Binge eating (episodes of uncontrollable eating) usually affects males and females equally and usually appears later in life (between the ages of 30 and 40). Due to the difficulty of precisely defining ‘binge eating’, it is not clear how widespread the condition is.
Signs of a potential eating disorder might include:
- Regularly missing meals.
- Being preoccupied with being overweight despite appearing to others to be in no need of losing weight.
- Being unwilling to eat in public or only eating low-calorie foods.
- Regularly going to the bathroom after eating meals.
- Excessive exercise.
The causes of eating disorders can be quite complex (e.g. depression and emotional distress, social pressures, the need to feel ‘in control’ of one aspect of one’s life) so it isn’t always easy to ascertain the reason for the problem. The treatment route should involve a professional counsellor or nutritionist who specialises in eating disorders who can give advice on other available options such as counselling, therapy, support groups, etc. Information on eating disorders and available treatments can be found on the NHS Choices website.
The importance of acting swiftly
If timely treatment is sought for eating disorders, it is possible for sufferers to return to a normal, fulfilling life. However, if left untreated, eating disorders may compromise a person’s ability to function at work and can result in irreversible physical damage to the body.
Unfortunately, eating disorders are typically not diagnosed until the disease has reached an advanced stage, mainly because sufferers will often go to great lengths to keep their condition from friends and colleagues, by which time treatment is often lengthy and expensive. As with many other conditions, prevention is better than cure, so promoting good physical and mental health at work (e.g. health promotion initiatives) and raising awareness of eating disorders may help prevent eating disorders going unnoticed.
For more guidance on work and health topics, take a look at the Fit for Work website, or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235.