Let's Talk About Eating Disorders

July 02, 2018

Caroline Toshack

I’m Caroline Toshack. I’m an exercise therapist which means that I help people to improve both their physical and mental health through exercise. I specialise in working with people who have, or have had, an eating disorder.

My interest in working with this particular group is because I had both anorexia and bulimia for many years. I also suffered from compulsive exercise before finally seeking help and recovering fully. I use my experiences to help others learn to enjoy food and exercise again.

People regularly contact me concerned about a friend or relative of theirs, and wondering how they can help them. I hope that this blog can provide some useful information and links to resources which may help you or someone that you know.

Often people think of very very thin girls when they imagine what an eating disorder looks like. Some people with eating disorders do look very thin but in actual fact there are many various forms of eating disorders and they can affect anyone of any size, body shape, age, race or gender. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.

Eating disorders typically involve over-riding the body’s natural appetite and need for food and carrying out certain behaviours which usually involve either restricting or binging on food or certain food groups, and sometimes finding ways to get rid of, or ‘purge’ calories that are eaten. Excessive exercise can sometimes be used as a way of purging.

It is natural for us all to overeat at times, or to miss a meal because of circumstances. It becomes problematic when we do this frequently and deliberately and when our behaviours around food and exercise become a way to feel better about ourself and cope with difficult situations or feelings. Compulsive thoughts and routines around food and exercise, secretive eating and feeling anxious when not able to eat or exercise as ‘needed’ can be an indicator that eating has become disordered and possibly that an eating disorder is developing.

Disorders usually occur as a way of coping. They are most often triggered at times of stress or transition, or as a reaction to a traumatic event. At these times we may look for a way to feel better, or to avoid certain feelings and focus on how we eat or exercise (or both) to fill that need. In the beginning this may work, but it doesn’t ultimately solve the real reason behind the feelings. Eventually it becomes a way of coping which can be difficult to then get out of.

Signs that someone you know may be dealing with an eating or exercise disorder are:

  • Increased concern about body shape and weight
  • Increased concern about “healthy eating”
  • Rigid behaviour around food or food rituals
  • Finding ways to not eat, or to exercise more often
  • Socially withdrawing
  • Changes in usual personality
  • Consuming excessive amounts of foods at times / minimal amounts at other times
  • Not eating in front of people or eating secretively
  • More frequent injuries
  • Continued training through injury or illness
  • Reluctance to back down from exercise when rest is advised

If you are worried that you may have an eating disorder then talking to someone you feel comfortable with can be the best place to start. If you don’t feel that you can speak to a friend, family member or your doctor then you can contact BEAT, the national charity for eating disorders. They have a number of skilled people who understand eating disorders and who you can speak to confidentiality by phone or web chat.

The earlier that help is sought then the more easily it is to recover. If you are concerned about someone that you know then you too can speak to BEAT who can help through your concerns and how you may best be able to support your friend or family member. Some tips that I can give you are:

  • Remember that food and exercise behaviours are a symptom of an underlying issue so telling the person what or how they should be eating or exercising may only cause them more anxiety and could potentially turn them away from asking for your support in future.
  • Instead you can tell them that you are worried about them and ask if there is anyway that you can help or support them with any difficulties that they are having. Do this in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed and where food is not being served.
  • Steer them towards seeking professional help, either through their doctor or via BEAT.
  • Be aware of your own language about body shape or food and exercise habits and keep away from labelling anything as ‘good’, ‘bad, ‘healthy, or ‘unhealthy’.
  • When someone you know is recovering from a disorder, never tell them that they look well, or healthy, or better. This is a very common trigger for relapse as the person interprets this as meaning that they look fat. Keep compliments specific or about non-physical factors’. For example: “that’s a nice shirt. It suits you’ or ‘it’s nice to spend time with you again’.

It can be tricky to navigate a path through an eating disorder and it is challenging for the person experiencing it and the people supporting them. However, it is completely possible to fully recover from an eating disorder and to enjoy a positive and healthy relationship with food and exercise.


BEAT: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Adult Helpline: 0808 801 0677

Studentline: 0808 801 0811

Youthline: 0808 801 0711

Recover-ED: www.recover-ED.net

Caroline is an exercise therapist who specialises in working with people who have, or have had an eating disorder. She is the founder of ‘Recover-ED’ which provides support to those experiencing disordered eating and raises awareness and understanding about what it means to experience an eating disorder. She co-lectures the Eating Disorders module at Edinburgh University sports faculty, runs a monthly support group and trains fitness professionals to recognise, understand and deal with eating and exercise disorders.
Caroline herself had anorexia, bulimia and exercised compulsively - all of which she is now completely recovered from. More about her can be found here: http://www.movetoyourpotential.com/about-me.html


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