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How to spot an eating disorder during Ramadan

While it’s one of the most important months in the Islamic calendar, the month of Ramadan can be extremely difficult for people with eating disorders. Fasting may cause further harm to both their physical and mental health, breaking the fast can trigger eating disorder behaviours, and as friends and family come together to observe the month, those suffering with these serious illnesses may feel isolated and lonely.


People who are ill are exempted from fasting during Ramadan, and for anyone diagnosed with or being treated for an eating disorder, this is a decision that can be taken with the help of the medical team responsible for their care. Support from the people around them to join in during Ramadan in the ways that are safe and comfortable for them will be incredibly helpful – what that might involve will be personal to each individual.


However, eating disorders are difficult to spot, and sometimes religious or cultural observances with a focus on food, such as Ramadan, can be used as a way to hide their symptoms. This means that someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder without the people around them being aware of it yet. But the time spent together with family during Ramadan might also mean it’s a time when you’re more likely to notice the signs in a loved one. Here are some things to be aware of so that you can help support anyone who needs it:


Eating disorders can affect anybody


Often, people imagine that only young women get eating disorders, and it’s true that young women are vulnerable to developing one. But anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what their age, gender, or background. It’s a common myth that people must be underweight if they have an eating disorder, too, but this isn’t the case, and people with eating disorders can lose or gain weight, or experience little or no change at all. No matter how differently eating disorders may present themselves, these illnesses are never a choice, and anyone experiencing one deserves help to get better as quickly as possible.


Eating disorders are mental illnesses


Because they’re often associated with physical symptoms, such as severe weight loss, it’s easy to forget that eating disorders are first and foremost a mental illness. That means that you’ll probably notice changes to someone’s behaviour and way of thinking before you notice any physical changes. Things like low self-esteem, a preoccupation with food or exercise, social withdrawal, avoiding eating with others, and being very critical about themselves are all possible signs of eating disorders.


As Ramadan approaches, someone with an eating disorder may seem particularly anxious or stressed, particularly about the food or social aspects, or they may seem very focused on the fasting or meals involved. Alternatively, they may try to draw focus away from their own fasting or eating. During meals, their portions might be unusually large or small, and they may prefer to eat by themselves. They might go away to the bathroom soon after eating, which could be a sign of purging.


Eating disorders can also cause people to become very rigid in their thinking and behaviour. This means that changes to the way they’re observing Ramadan compared to previous years, such as being with different people or in a different place, might cause stress and worry that you wouldn’t usually expect from them.


Eating disorders are very secretive


While the illness is not their fault, people may feel guilt and shame about having an eating disorder. Often eating disorders are a way of coping with difficult thoughts, feelings, or situations, which can also make people reluctant to “give up” the illness. Sometimes, people may not be able to recognise that they’re ill. This might mean that they feel defensive if someone tries to raise it with them. Someone denying that they have an eating disorder doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fine. A non-confrontational approach and letting them know that you care for them and are there for them to share their thoughts with is often the best way to talk to someone you’re concerned about.


Eating disorders are treatable


If you do have concerns that you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, please remember that, while very serious, eating disorders are treatable and full recovery is possible. The most important thing is that someone seeks treatment as soon as they can. Talking to a GP who can make a referral to a specialist eating disorder service is usually the first step, and there is information available from Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, to help make sure the appointment has a positive outcome.


You can find much more information about eating disorders, how to spot the signs, and where to go for help on Beat’s website. And if you need to talk to someone about either yourself or someone you know, you can also contact their Helplines, which are open every day, or use their online support groups. Visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk to learn more, or call the Helpline on 0808 801 0677 from 12 – 8pm weekdays and 4 – 8pm weekends and Bank Holidays. Guest blog from Beating Disorders

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