From Feb. 22-28, 2021, the United States recognizes National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The purpose of this week is to spread awareness about the prevalence of eating disorders in the United States; help educate the public about signs, symptoms and risks of eating disorders; learn how to speak in a more positive and constructive way about eating, weight and body image; and provide resources to help those who are struggling with this illness.
There are many misconceptions about eating disorders. One common misconception is that you would be able to recognize a person with an eating disorder simply from their outward appearance and that the person would be very thin or underweight. This is not true, and many individuals who struggle with eating disorders are at a weight that would be considered in the normal range or even overweight. Another misconception is those struggling with an eating disorder are mainly women, or within a certain age range. This is also not true, and eating disorders can affect any person, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or other characteristic. It is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. This is a staggering number, and many may be shocked to hear that the statistic is this high, particularly if they don’t believe they’ve ever known someone with an eating disorder. But that shows the importance of bringing awareness to this problem.
Most people have heard of anorexia and bulimia as eating disorders, but there are other forms of disordered eating as well. Binge eating is another eating disorder and is one many might not recognize as an eating disorder, instead thinking of it as “stress eating” or just plain overeating. It, however, can be a serious problem with various health consequences. Orthorexia and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder are forms of disordered eating habits that may actually present as the person being healthy, and are therefore often more difficult to recognize, diagnose and treat. Orthorexia manifests as an obsession with the nutritional value of foods and a fear of consuming foods that do not meet the “criteria” the person has set in their mind. It can lead to malnutrition. Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is similar to anorexia in many ways, but unlike anorexia, the driving force of ARFID is not weight loss or physical appearance, but rather a fear of consuming foods with certain characteristics, such as a particular texture or consistency. This can also lead to unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition.
Eating disorders can be treated! One of the first steps in recovery is to identify and address the problem. This can often be the hardest step, as eating disorders are usually very private problems and the individual often goes to great lengths to keep their behaviors secretive and hidden from those around them. The earlier the problem can be recognized and addressed, the better chance the individual has for avoiding serious, long-term health consequences and having a more successful recovery. Typical treatment includes therapy and other mental health treatment and working with nutritionists. The type of treatment needed, though, will depend on the severity of the disorder. Inpatient treatment, hospitalization and residential care may be needed. This may seem frightening and overwhelming, but there are many resources available for treatment of eating disorders and getting the right kind of treatment saves lives.
Many people with eating disorders suffer for a long time in silence and feel no one would understand their struggles and there is little hope for them to ever get better. It can be a lifelong journey of hard work to overcome an eating disorder and maintain a healthy relationship with food and exercise, but, with the right help, individuals who have suffered from disordered eating can regain their physical and mental health and return to living a healthier and happier life. The general public can help by learning how to support those with eating disorders, including changing their attitudes and comments about eating habits, weight and body image; becoming aware of signs and symptoms of a problem and learning how to best address it; and becoming aware of resources available to those who need help. For more information, you can visit: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ or https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/upcoming-event/national-eating-disorders-awareness-week.