National Eating Disorder Awareness Week Feb. 26 - March 4.
The theme of this year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is “It’s Time to Talk about It.”
The purpose of the Feb. 26-March 4 week is to raise awareness of eating disorders and identify those who are struggling so they can get the help they need.
What exactly is an eating disorder and why is it a big deal? What are the risk factors, warning signs and negative health effects?
Unfortunately, more than 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder of some kind.1 This includes anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED), as identified in the manual for diagnosing mental disorders (the DSM-5). The prevalence of eating disorders in both males and females is on the rise, especially for those in their adolescent or early adult years. Eating disorders do not discriminate based on age, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. They affect people both young and old, male and female, wealthy and poor, and of every race and ethnicity.
Anorexia clinically manifests as inadequate food intake that results in an extremely low weight and fear of maintaining a healthy weight, with both binge-purge or restriction only behaviors. It is important to note that eating disorders in males is on the rise but manifests differently. It is often an obsession with being lean and muscular, leading to the use of harmful supplements, excessive exercise, and rigid eating. Bulimia manifests as eating larger than normal amounts of food in a short amount of time with behaviors to “offset” their intake and prevent weight gain. These behaviors include vomiting, use of laxatives, or even excessive exercise. Binge eating is eating larger than normal amounts of food in a short amount of time several times a week without compensating for food intake. Other specified feeding and eating disorders is a catchall category for other disordered eating that does not fit all of the criteria for one of the first three categories. This does not mean that they are not as serious or cause extreme harm.
An eating disorder impacts a person’s life in many profound ways—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Astonishingly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder, with anorexia having the highest mortality rate.2 Other health complications include malnutrition, esophageal damage, slow heart rate, heart failure, electrolyte imbalances, poor immunity, osteoporosis (bone loss), hair loss, tooth decay, intestinal damage, and metabolic problems.2 Aside from physical health complications, eating disorders alienate the individual and are often accompanied with anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, and depression. Eating disorders often get in the way of individuals being able to truly live life because they are bound to their behaviors, such as excessive exercise, restricting food, purging, or bingeing in secret.
An eating disorder develops over time and is often a product of genetic predisposition, certain personality traits (such as perfectionism), societal pressures, and triggering events. Dieting is one of the biggest predictors of developing an eating disorder, with statistically one in four dieters developing an eating disorder. This is startling when we know that up to 40% of elementary and adolescent girls engage in some form of dieting.3 In a society that idolizes the thin ideal, shames large bodies, encourages large amounts of intense exercise, and demonizes certain foods, much emphasis is put on what our bodies look like and how we are “supposed” to take care of it. Add on top of all that body focus a major life change or stressor such as puberty, trauma, divorce, move or death of a loved one, and the eating disorder can become a way of coping with that stressor.
So, how do we distinguish between someone who is pursuing health and someone who has taken it too far to where it is unhealthy physically and psychologically? A great indicator is does it get in the way of relationships, school or work? Warning signs for an eating disorder include a preoccupation with food, exercise and weight; an intense fear of gaining weight; drastic weight loss; large weight fluctuations; exercising despite injury; large amounts of food missing; bringing their own “safe” food to functions; loss of hair; swollen glands in the cheeks; lethargy; and isolation.4
In a world that praises intense exercise and eating “healthy,” it is difficult for someone with an eating disorder to seek help or pursue recovery. Their disordered behaviors are the exact ones that are praised or celebrated in our society. If you think you may have an eating disorder, or someone you love may have one, reach out to get help. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a free screening tool at http://nedawareness.org/get-screened or you can call their referral helpline at 1-800-931-2237. Together, let’s raise awareness about the harms of eating disorders and help others to pursue healing in this area.