As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, I know that, even in the course of a long career, I will only ever meet a fraction of the 30 million people living in the United States who will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Many will never seek treatment; some might not recognize their eating patterns as being disordered; others might not know that help is available. Disordered eating can be experienced in myriad ways, affecting both youth and adults as well as males and females. No matter the manifestation, eating disorders are serious, and often can be life-threatening illnesses. Nevertheless, the education about eating disorders that exists in the public domain is often lacking. Here are five facts about eating disorders that I wish everyone knew:
1. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. They don’t discriminate between the young and the old, genders or race. While most eating disorders are associated with younger populations, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, studies show that 90% of adult women worry about their weight, and 60% engage in weight control behaviors that have the potential to manifest in disordered eating patterns. Though assessment tests have been historically biased towards female populations, reports show that of the 30 million people suffering with eating disorders in the U.S., one-third are men.
2. Signs of a disorder vary. Depending on the particular eating disorder, symptoms can present very differently. However, this does not lessen the severity of the problem. It’s important to be aware of eating patterns and behaviors that could be a sign of a problem. These may include inadequate food intake leading to low body weight; obsession with weight and persistent behavior to prevent weight gain; self-esteem being overly related to body image; and frequently consuming a very large amount of food and then engaging in behaviors to prevent weight gain.
3. Harmful eating behavior is evolving. Eating disorders have evolved beyond traditional illnesses like anorexia, which involves inadequate food intake, and bulimia – excessive intake followed by purposeful purging. For example, orthorexia, a newer diagnosis, is defined as an unhealthy fixation with consuming only healthy or “pure” foods paired with an extreme belief that other foods are “bad.” Similarly, bigorexia is an obsession with building muscle through exercise and nutrition that is associated with a body dysmorphic mentality, where a person views him or herself as being too small or too skinny despite being very muscular.
4. They are all-consuming. While many of us may have something about our appearance that we don’t particularly like, we do not often obsess over these commonplace imperfections. People with eating disorders are consumed with their perceived imperfections to the point that the obsession interferes with their daily lives. Those with disordered eating patterns often think about food and/or their imperfections many hours of the day. They lose the ability to control their negative thought patterns and it can cause severe emotional distress.
5. You can recover. While the road to recovery can be overwhelming and difficult, there is help available. Early intervention is the first step towards a successful recovery and that’s why education and awareness is so important. When loved ones know the signs and symptoms of disordered eating behaviors, they are better able to support the person that’s suffering. From inpatient care to outpatient counseling, there are a number of ways people can get help.
Working in mental health has taught me that recovery from anything is one of the most powerful things a person can do!