Have you ever wondered what it’s like to dine with an eating disorder? The reality is that eating disorders come in many different forms, each with its own unique challenges. In fact, the last time you ate out, there may have been an eating disorder sufferer sitting at the next table. Or even at yours. To help demonstrate how easily eating disorders can hide in plain sight, let’s meet four friends, each with a different disorder, all dining in the same restaurant.
Katie is twenty-two years old and has been struggling with Anorexia Nervosa since she was fifteen. She knows that she has an eating disorder but has never sought treatment, feeling embarrassed and fearful of what treatment would involve. She’s become very skilled at hiding her disorder from her loved ones, particularly since she started living alone, and many of her friends and family don’t even know she has the condition.
As she sits alone at a small table in the corner of the restaurant, Katie can feel her stomach growling. The thought of ordering anything else makes her feel uneasy, but she knows she needs to eat. Anorexia Nervosa is a serious mental health disorder that is characterised by an extreme fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, and an inability to maintain a healthy weight. People with Anorexia Nervosa may avoid certain foods, count calories obsessively and engage in excessive exercise in order to maintain their low weight.
Earlier today, Katie looked up the restaurant menu online. Since April 2022, the UK government has made it mandatory for large restaurants to include calories on menus, a move which was condemned by the eating disorder charity, BEAT as being potentially triggering for sufferers. Katie sees it is a godsend, however, and has chosen the lowest-calorie salad and a glass of water.
As Katie waits for her food, she hears the familiar voice in her head. “You shouldn’t have ordered that. It’s full of fat and sugar. You’re going to regret it.” It’s the voice of her eating disorder, a constant presence in her mind. She tries to push it away, but it’s always there, telling her that she’s not good enough, not thin enough.
She is wearing a baggy jumper which is common among people suffering from Anorexia Nervosa both to hide their body and to stay warm. When her small salad finally comes, Katie pushes it around her plate. She can feel the eyes of everyone else in the restaurant on her. Fear of others watching you eat is called Deipnophobia and it is both a common symptom of eating disorders and a form of social anxiety in itself. Katie asks the waitress if she can take the rest of her food to go and leaves the restaurant quietly.
Andrew is thirty-five years old and developed Binge Eating Disorder (BED) around seven years previously during a period of depression following a breakup. Mental health conditions like depression and trauma are common triggers of all eating disorders and can complicate management and treatment.
BED is one of the most common eating disorders among men and is usually developed in the late twenties, with sufferers experiencing episodes of uncontrollable eating, often consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, and they feel a loss of control over their eating behaviours.
As Andrew digs into his food, he’s surrounded by his colleagues, impressed by how much he can eat.
“Looks like you’re enjoying that, big guy,” one of them says with a laugh.
Andrew grins and takes another bite. He’s always been a big eater and he’s never really thought anything of it. But lately, he’s been feeling more and more out of control. He’s been gaining weight, and he doesn’t know how to stop it. He can feel the shame creeping in, even as he eats.
“It’s all bought and paid for,” he jokes.
However, the reality of BED is that it is a serious condition with potentially life-threatening health risks. BED can lead to numerous obesity-related health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, and while Andrew doesn’t know it, he could be eating himself into an early grave. That is why it is so important for people with BED and other eating disorders to seek help immediately from their GP or a professional eating disorder rehab centre like Banbury Lodge.
Tom is twenty-three years old and one of the 25% of Bulimia Nervosa sufferers who are male (although many experts believe the number could be far higher). Bulimia Nervosa is a severe eating disorder characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours such as purging, fasting or excessive exercise. Tom often eats as much as he likes but will purge himself after every meal by throwing up or by taking laxatives.
As Tom sits with his group of friends, he starts to feel a sense of unease. He wants to tell them about his disorder, to confess what he’s been doing. But as he looks around at the raucous group of guys, he knows that he can’t. They’re all talking loudly, joking around and he feels like he’s on the outside looking in.
“You look like you’ve been hitting the gym, man,” one of his friends says and Tom feels a sense of pride.
“I guess I must be looking good,” he says to himself, scanning the room for the toilet. Unfortunately, fear of stigma prevents many people like Tom from seeking help which often leads them to become more and more trapped in the grips of their eating disorder.
Lucy is twenty years old and has a combination of undiagnosed eating disorders, which often makes it very difficult to spot the issue. Physically, she’s in good health but her condition has roots in childhood trauma which affects her self-esteem and confidence and leads to regular episodes of depression and anxiety.
Tonight, she is out on a first date, a nerve-wracking occasion for most people but particularly scary for eating disorder sufferers. As Lucy sits across from her attractive date, the conversation turns to health and fitness. Lucy’s date is impressed by her slim physique and asks her about her workout routine.
“I work out every day,” Lucy says, her voice confident. “I run for an hour in the morning, do yoga three times a week, and eat a mostly vegan diet. I count every calorie that goes into my body, and I’m constantly checking my weight and measurements.”
Lucy’s obsession with her body has a name: body dysmorphia. It’s a condition that affects many people with eating disorders, causing them to see themselves as overweight or unattractive, even when they’re not, and leads to unhealthy eating habits and compulsive exercise.
“I used to be much heavier,” she says, her voice tinged with bitterness. “But I worked really hard to lose the weight. I’m never going back to the way I was before.”
Her date nods, seeming to understand. But Lucy can’t help but worry that he thinks she’s not thin enough, that he can see the flaws that she’s worked so hard to hide.
Lucy has ordered the healthiest starter on the menu and a large salad but asks for the dressing on the side so she can decide how much she wants. As the meal winds down and the server brings out the dessert menu, she feels a pang of anxiety. She knows she shouldn’t indulge, that it will only set her back in her quest for perfection. “No, thank you,” she says firmly, trying to hide the fear in her voice. “I’m not really a dessert person.”
As she kisses her date in the back of the taxi, she is worried that when they get home, all that food she ate is going to turn him off and she can already feel how tight her dress has become.
Have you ever been out for dinner with someone like the characters in this story? Would you even notice if you had? These stories show how eating disorders are masters at hiding in plain sight and that makes it so easy for sufferers to hide their conditions.
Tomorrow, our four characters will all start the same cycle again, each with their own symptoms and difficulties, just four of the millions of people with eating disorders who never seek treatment.
For many, this is out of fear of being stigmatised or judged. Therefore, it is crucial that as a society, we work towards removing any stigma around eating disorders so that those who are suffering feel confident about coming forward and asking for help.
In light of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, it is the ideal time to educate ourselves and throw away old misconceptions about eating disorders and who they affect. The characters in this story may be fictional but they are representative of the facts. Eating disorders can affect men and women, symptoms are not limited to restrictive eating or purging, and someone close to you could be suffering without you knowing it.
That’s why it is so important to understand and recognise the signs of eating disorders and if you suspect your loved one is suffering, make sure they know they know they are not alone. Encourage them to seek professional treatment and offer practical support in getting the help they need. Banbury Lodge can help them on every step of their recovery journey and free them from the grip of these awful conditions.