Eating Disorders – the what, the why and how to help

IWF looks at the what, why and how of helping people with eating disorders & why we should be concerned about them.

bulimia Eating disorders are on the rise in Australia, causing significant physical and mental health problems. As a trainer I find it hard to educate, especially new clients on what is to be fit and healthy. Often the hardest part is telling (guys and girls) that skinny isn’t fit nor is it seen as healthy for most. Eating and exercise behaviours both lie on a spectrum, moving from healthy to possessing a disorder. A person who sits at the healthy end enjoys food and eating, has a balanced diet, will exercise for health and/ or recreation and will engage in these behaviours for reasons unrelated to negative feelings about self – worth, shame or guilt about their body.

A person who lies in the middle of the spectrum may a diet that is not entirely balanced or restrictive but includes a wide range of foods, they may want to weigh less or be unhappy with some parts of their body. Occasionally they may restrict food groups or change their eating patterns to lose weight (i.e. go on a diet, restrict carbohydrates or sugars). This person may be slightly underweight, be of a healthy weight or be slightly overweight. May exercise too little or too infrequently but will generally not let eating or exercise patterns interfere with their ability to engage in positive relationships, work, school or family commitments.

Through my experience, I have found that women tend to fall into this middle spectrum, unlike men they tend to experience some shame about their body and often use mildly disordered eating or exercise for weight control.

A person who lies at the disordered end of the spectrum will use unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours to manage negative feelings. A person at this end may possess feelings of an intense dislike for their body, often due to belief that their weight or shape determines their level of self – worth, achievement or success. When a person believes that to be successful and attractive, they have to look thin or muscular, like the images viewed in magazines, movies or on television, they can experience intense shame over their body and guilt about eating, if their body doesn’t mirror up to how they wish to look.

To reduce these negative feelings or to enhance positive feelings of control and achievement, the individual may use weight control behaviours, which include extreme dieting or restricted eating, fasting, self – induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medications or excessive exercise.

At the extreme end of the spectrum lies those individuals with a clinical eating disorder. According to mental health professionals, these eating disorders are psychological problems and are characterised by severe disturbances in eating behaviour. There are four types of clinical eating: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified.

It is important to realise that most eating disorders are actually associated with weight gain, being overweight or obesity, so it is important not to look for weight loss as the only sign that someone is struggling with an eating disorder.

Why should we be concerned about eating disorders?

Eating disordanorexiaers are frequently associated with other psychological and physical disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. The impact of an eating disorder is not only felt by the individual, but often by that person’s entire family or circle of support. For families, the impact may include stress, loss of income, disruption to family relationships and even a high suicide risk. Individuals who exercise with eating disorders may reach levels of exhaustion faster, have trouble achieving their fitness goals and are more prone to injury and illness.

The sad fact is, despite the availability of effective treatments, very few people with eating disorders seek appropriate treatment and public knowledge of symptoms and their effects is very poor.

So, what can you do if you know someone suffering with an eating disorder?

Here are some tips for a supportive conversation.

  • Tell the person what you have seen or heard that concerns you
  • Stick to what you know and not what others have told you
  • Suggest you think there is a problem
  • Remain calm and try to be non – judgmental
  • Importantly, be mindful of your own attitudes to weight, shape and healthy eating and how these may impact on the person suffering.


What to avoid

  • Delaying talking to the person
  • Dismissing the problem as not serious or not worth worrying about
  • Being critical or giving simple solutions i.e. Try not to say things like, “just eat!” or “stop bingeing”
  • Do not try and solve all the persons problems or become over – involved
  • Saying or implying that the person or problem is self – destructive or shameful


Anyone can experience an eating disorder so being as informed as possible about how to recognise eating disorders will help you identify the warning signs in someone close to you or who you are concerned about. It is important to talk to a professional who can give advice, specialised information and support. Every State and Territory in Australia has an organisation or help service aiming to support those individuals and families affected by eating disorders. These organisations are also there to better inform the community about disordered eating and the impact they have on all involved.

It is not easy to detect that someone has an eating disorder as eating disorders cannot be identified by an individual’s size or shape.

Remember people with eating disorders may go to great heights to disguise or hide their behaviour, or do not recognise that there is a problem. This may make the characteristics of identifying the behaviour or illness difficult to notice and it is often hard for the person with an eating disorder to ask for help. For advice, information or help contact the butterfly foundation web counselling service or national support line.

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