Eating disorders awareness week took place 24th February – 2nd March and was coordinated by the UK’s only nationwide organisation and the world’s largest eating disorders charity, b-eat; beat eating disorders. All year round b-eat runs a wide variety of activities that are designed to increase knowledge and awareness, provide support and information and enhance understanding for those who suffer from an eating disorder and for families and friends also affected. An eating disorder is a mental illness yet one that has many negative connotations and social stigma attached; attitudes that need to be wiped out especially in today’s society where information on mental health and eating is so readily available. Inspired by the prospect of helping ‘wipe out’ any negative views towards mental health and in particular eating disorders, it became apparent to me to write about the facts and myths that surround eating disorders and hopefully help tackle those ever present social stigmas.
Firstly, what exactly is an eating disorder? Eating disorders are characterised by an unusual or abnormal attitude towards food which results in someone changing their eating habits to an unhealthy and extreme degree that damages their health.
Speculation surrounds eating disorders and how they occur, for example; environment, brain functioning and social pressure from peers and society. The nature v nurture argument is a long and constant battle, it is thought that the way an individual is raised and their general surroundings must influence their behaviour and thought process yet everyone is born with specific personality traits that can’t be learnt. Simply, if an individual is raised in a specific way it may trigger personality traits they were born with; a predisposition to acquire an eating disorder.
Many tests now track brain functioning such as PET (Positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging.) Both tests look at the functioning of the brain and fMRI scans allow us to track certain levels in the brain and how various parts of the brain respond to certain stimuli, in this case, food. Scientists at Columbia University believe that there may be correlation between alterations in an individual’s brain mechanics and eating disorders. Chemicals within the brain send messages to each other and this process can sometimes be altered causing reactions. Depression, anxiety, obsessions and the control of hunger are all linked to two specific chemicals called serotonin and dopamine.
Social pressure from peers can also create an unhealthy obsession with body image; however, it is often thought that causes are usually more complex than an individual wanting to look slimmer. An anonymous source who suffered from an eating disorder explained;
“Any therapist will tell you that an eating disorder is a coping mechanism that arises from not dealing with other issues.”
Since learning of the predisposition to acquire an eating disorder and the potential differences in brain activity, could it be that only certain members of a peer group acquire an eating disorder even when in the same position as their peers? Potentially one could argue that social pressure acts as a catalyst and encourages a reaction that an individual already has the predisposition to acquire.
Strongly related to social pressure from peers is the pressure from an arguably larger party; society. After all, who or what is it that influences our peers? Ideas and notions about body image portrayed within peer groups have been learnt, seen, copied and subconsciously infiltrated into society. Beyoncé’s latest Instagram might inspire hundreds of girls to start pounding the pavement every night and squatting in their room, but when does this transpire from an inspiration and become a hindrance?
Statistically 1.6 million people within the UK suffer from an eating disorder of which 11% are male. Adolescent girls aged 15-19 years have the highest incidence of eating disorders; approximately 4,610 girls every year in the UK develop a new eating disorder and eating disorders reaching the third most chronic illness for females in the UK. The 11% that represent males with an eating disorder means approximately 336 boys develop a new eating disorder every year in the UK. While anorexia is more common with younger males, bulimia is more common among males aged 20-29 years.
If so many people suffer from eating disorders and psychological conditions attached to eating disorders; approximately 50% of cases also suffer from either depression or anxiety, can we ask, how aware are we really? Understanding eating disorders, creating more awareness of their existence, increasing knowledge and destroying any social prejudice, gives people the opportunity to seek support in a more understanding society. If one in five women suffer from an eating disorder then chances are everyone knows at least one individual who has suffered at some point in their lifetime.
Nowadays, support groups, doctors, nutritionists, hospitals and charities; such as b-eat, all aim to help, support, encourage and increase understanding of eating disorders.
Student Minds is a voluntary group providing peer support to students who suffer or have suffered with an eating disorder. The group provides an outlet for students to converse with fellow peers about the feelings that accompany eating disorders and share experiences of general life as someone who has to deal with an eating disorder. It is an extremely friendly, informal and supportive environment and upholds a strong confidentiality policy. The group meets every Monday evening during the hours 7-8pm, Little LUU House, Clarendon Place.
By Sophie Green