Eating Behaviours

How we feel and what we think about food and the behaviours we develop can be influenced by many different interacting factors, including those which are psychological, emotional, contextual, social, familial, cultural, and physical. And so, our eating behaviours can change on a daily basis and be responsive to our current internal and external environments. Having positive eating behaviours and attitudes towards food is an essential part of our wellbeing, and development of disordered eating behaviours or patterns can impact our physical and mental wellbeing directly, as well as in some cases signalling that something else may be going on.  

Disordered Eating & Eating Disorders

Disordered eating is a term that describes a range of problematic eating behaviours and associated attitudes that deviate from the norm and impact on physical and/or mental wellbeing. It does not necessarily indicate the presence of an eating disorder, however experience of disordered eating can negatively impact on health and wellbeing, and cause or indicate distress. Development of disordered eating may include behaviours such as: 

Disordered eating and eating disorders (ED) have many factors in common, however in general the main considerations to distinguish them are around the duration, frequency, and severity of symptoms. Eating disorders are a clinical diagnosis with specific diagnostic criteria. They are severe and complex mental health conditions that usually arise as a way of coping with negative or painful thoughts or feelings. Common types of eating disorder include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Although distinct disorders, often symptoms can overlap which can result in a diagnosis of OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder). These eating disorders are usually associated with significant body dissatisfaction and preoccupations with weight, shape, and body size. 

Some eating disorders do not stem from concerns or beliefs about weight or health, but instead arise due to a lack of interest in food, sensory sensitivity, and/or fear of aversive consequences (such as being sick or choking). This is called ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) and is characterised by a pattern of eating that omits certain foods or food groups in their entirety and/or only eating small amounts. You can read more about these and other types of eating disorder here. 

There are a wide range of interacting risk factors that can contribute to development of disordered eating and eating disorders, and it is important to remember that they are not associated with a certain ‘look’ or ‘type’. People of any gender, background, and size can experience them. Risk factors can include: 

  • Experience of appearance related teasing/bullying  
  • Dieting culture  
  • Engagement in dieting and weight loss attempts 
  • Pressure to achieve (e.g., with grades, in sport) 
  • Sociocultural pressures (e.g., thin ideal, social media) 
  • Adverse childhood experiences  
  • Family conflict  
  • Experience of comments on weight, shape, and eating habits 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Perfectionism 
  • Depression and anxiety  
  • Higher body weight  
  • Family history of eating disorders  
  • Distressing or traumatic experience with food  
  • Poor recognition of appetite cues  

Understanding and being able to recognise typical signs and behaviours of eating disorders and disordered eating can be helpful in spotting pupils who may be struggling and in need of help. Warning signs that something may be amiss can include: 

 

  • Increased preoccupation with body size, weight, or shape  
  • Social withdrawal  
  • Eating alone or skipping meals  
  • Hiding food 
  • Being secretive 
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide body shape  
  • Frequent visits to the toilet, especially after eating  
  • Over exercising  
  • Weight loss (regardless of size) 
  • Poor sleep 
  • Lack of energy and concentration  
  • Negative self-talk 
  • Low mood  

 

(NB: experience of these may not necessarily indicate a problem but further advice should be sought from a Safeguarding Lead, School Nurse, Designated Mental Health Lead, or MHST Lead if an eating disorder is suspected).  

 

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