February 26 – March 3, 2024
Eating disorders can impact any person at any point in their life regardless of age, gender, or body shape. Often eating disorders present as an extreme preoccupation with food, body size, or shape. Eating disorders are not a choice, they are bio-psycho-social diseases, which means that genetic, biological, environmental, and social elements all play a role.
According to the Emily Program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping eating disorder patients, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness impacting over 30 million Americans. Eating disorders are more prevalent than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia. Those who suffer from eating disorders are also at higher risk of suicide, with eating disorders being the second most fatal mental illness, surpassed only by opioid use disorder. So why don’t we hear more about eating disorder prevalence and treatment? Stigma.
Having personally struggled with an eating disorder for most of my life I can admit that I hid it from myself and my loved ones for many years. It began when I was a child, as my family often used food to cope with big emotions. When our family pet passed away, for example, we were rewarded with junk food binges to make us feel better. I was subconsciously being taught to eat my sadness instead of dealing with my grief. These periods of junk food binging were typically followed by very restrictive eating, cutting out all junk food, to “make up” for our binge. This reinforced the notion that food is either good or bad, and if you eat something bad you needed to atone by eating only good foods.
As I grew older, I used food as a control mechanism to cope with anxiety. If I was having a particularly stressful day, I would skip meals to get more work done. Yet I would still go to the gym after work with the goal of letting off some stress. It took me many years to recognize what I was doing was unhealthy and to get help. Healing myself allowed my family to have bigger conversations around food and unhealthy coping mechanisms. While we still struggle, we know that we can lean on each other now for support without fear of judgment.
Many eating disorder sufferers go to great lengths to hide unhealthy behaviors. Some unhealthy behaviors have even become normalized in our society. You’ve probably seen laxative teas promoted by celebrities on social media or overly restrictive and dangerous fad diets which are consistently promoted in the media. We are bombarded with messaging that reinforces unsafe behaviors. Eating disorders are often coupled with other mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
- Recurring extreme dieting
- Preoccupation with calories, fat, carbs, etc.
- Uncomfortable eating around others
- Mood swings
- Skipping meals
- Withdrawal from friends or social activities
Common eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa – avoiding food or severely restricting food
- Warning Signs: intense fear of weight gain, distorted body image
- Bulimia nervosa – eating large amounts of food followed by forced vomiting, use of laxatives/diuretics, fasting, overexercising, or a combination of these behaviors.
- Warning Signs: worn tooth enamel, sore throat, acid reflux, intestinal distress, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance.
- Binge eating disorder (BED) – losing control when eating, eating unusually large amounts of food. Not followed by purging, exercise, or fasting.
- Warning Signs: eating when not hungry, eating until uncomfortable, feeling distressed or ashamed about eating.
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) – severely limiting the food you consume, or type of food consumed. Presents in mid-childhood usually as extreme pickiness.
- Warning Signs: Lack of appetite or interest in food, dramatic weight loss, upset stomach with no cause, picky eating that gets worse over time.
Eating Disorder Awareness Week is an annual event promoted by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders, to raise awareness about the seriousness of eating disorders in the US. Each of us can play a part in helping people suffering from eating disorders get connected to the right support. NEDA’s helpline is a resource page offering multiple national organizations helplines. They can be accessed via call or text to offer support and educational resources – please reach out if you or a loved one needs help.
Looking for ways you can help?
- Volunteer to operate a mental health hotline
- Educate yourself on the symptoms and triggers to be a better ally and help reduce stigma
- Share your personal story and offer support to those in need