Next week begins National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, from Feb. 22 – Feb. 28. Each year, the diversity of eating disorders and their realness is acknowledged in a special way by organizations across the U.S. Historically, media portrayals of eating disorders have misrepresented these sensitive medical conditions, which has perpetuated myths and misunderstanding of their complex nature. Today, psychological and medical research is still evolving the way we identify and treat eating disorders, so, we must be able to change the way we think about them and the people who have them. Eating disorders affect nine percent of the world’s population (Arcelus, 2011) and 28.8 million Americans in their lifetime (STRIPED, 2020). Although eating disorders cannot be summarized in a short newspaper article, every representation and distribution of information is necessary.
Eating disorders are treatable psychiatric and medical disorders that can have serious consequences for health, productivity and relationships. There are many types of eating disorders that have varied behaviors that affect a person’s relationship with body image, food, eating and voiding. They affect nearly every area of one’s life since nutrition and functioning are disrupted as features of the disorders. Eating disorders are not a choice; they are caused by many factors in a person’s life including biology, psychology and sociocultural status. Health consequences may cause cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hormonal, metabolic and neurological problems which may persist for a long time after the disorder has remitted. Specific eating disorders have their own features and symptoms.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by weight loss and difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight; many individuals with this disorder also often have distorted body language. Generally, individuals with anorexia nervosa restrict their calorie intake and the types of food they eat. Some people purge what they eat or exercise compulsively. Usually, this disorder begins in adolescence, but it can develop at any age. Anorexia nervosa is a very common eating disorder, affecting 0.4 percent of young women and 0.1 percent of young men; other genders were not reported (NEDA).
Bulimia nervosa is a similarly common eating disorder with a prevalence of one percent in young women and 0.1 percent in young men (NEDA). Bulimia nervosa is similar to anorexia nervosa, but its primary behaviors are a cycle of binge-eating and compensation to undo the effects of binge-eating, such as self-induced vomiting with the purpose to undo the eating.
Binge-eating disorder is by far the most common eating disorder since it is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. It affects 3.5 percent of women and two percent of men in their lifetime (NEDA). It is characterized by recurring instances of eating large quantities of food to the point of pain, often leaving the individual feeling out of control during the event. The eating is then followed by compensatory behaviors to undo the eating, usually purging. Since bulimia and binge-eating disorder seem to be the same, it is important to note that the defining difference between them is that binge-eating disorder must have compensatory behaviors that follow binges, which does not have to happen for bulimia.
There are several other types of eating disorders that don’t share the prevalence of these three but are still very real and difficult to deal with. Most eating disorder co-occur with other mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression. If you would like to know more, seek information from a reputable source that can give you the most updated data. The National Eating Disorders Association is a good place to get started.
Anyone can have an eating disorder. People of all genders, sexual orientations, region, religion, ethnicity, race, ability, age and socioeconomic status can develop an eating disorder at nearly any point in their lives. People of all builds, weights and heights can also have eating disorders, and these characteristics do not restrict to any one type of eating disorder. For example, higher weight people can develop anorexia nervosa despite its previous association with people of normal or under normal weight. Men also go underdiagnosed and seek treatment less frequently because of the stigma around male eating problems. Any body can have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders have a wide spectrum of appearances. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them, so, it is better to not make judgements about anyone regarding this since you do not know their private health information. Consider phrases like “She looks so anorexic,” “He totally binges,” and “They probably diet and exercise all the time,” as offensive to say about anyone. These are only a couple out of many phrases that our society has normalized. Be on the lookout for insensitive remarks like these. You really don’t know who you are affecting when you say them besides being blatantly fatphobic when you do, so, it is just better to not say them.
Although you can’t generalize what people look like as a way of telling if someone might be struggling with an eating disorder, there are signs that may tell you that someone could be battling an eating disorder. Common symptoms include behaviors and attitudes that indicate that food, calories or weight are becoming a primary concern: frequent dieting, extreme concern with body size and weight, fainting, noticeable fluctuations in weight both up and down. These are just the very common signs of an eating disorder. Of course, each individual condition has its own characteristics that may differ from the others.
Keep in mind that it is not your job to find out if someone has an eating disorder. If someone discloses that information to you, it is highly personal, private and may take an incredible amount of trust to share such information about themselves. If you discover that they are struggling but do not have the support they need, you may refer them to professional sources of help that specialize in eating disorder management and treatment. Do not give food or dieting advice or make any comments about their appearance. Advice and comments may cause more harm than good, so, it is important to just stay in a validating and nonjudgmental role. If you notice that someone is in an emergency related to their eating struggles, such as loss of consciousness or severe bleeding, call 911. For all other concerns, Lawrence University counseling and health services are available to help. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 920-832-6574.