Hi all! Today I’m going to talk about something that strikes very close to home for an unfortunately large number of people: Eating Disorders.
As many of you know, I’ve had my own issues with disordered eating, the most recent of which was a physiological condition that kept me from feeling hunger – and I was happy about it – until I became so horrifically thin that many of my friends & family approached me out of fear for my own health.
Let me re-emphasize: I did not seek help for nearly 5 months, because in my head I thought it was a good thing; losing so much weight so effortlessly. My friends & family approached me and expressed their concern. Without this key factor, I’m pretty sure I would have ended up in a hospital, hooked up to IVs.
It is essential that if you suspect someone you care about has an eating disorder, SAY SOMETHING. It could potentially save her or his life.
In 2011 it was found that the mortality rate was 4% for anorexics, putting it at the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. When you include disorder-related health complications such as heart problems & suicide, the mortality rate of anorexia skyrockets to 20%. The mortality rate is 3.9% for bulimics (who also suffer from the highest suicide rates out of all the eating disorders), and 5.2% for unspecified eating disorders.
The following infographic was released by CNN in 2013 (click on it to read, my WP theme condenses images):
What concerns me the most is the numbers on children. Hospitalizations among children under 12 increased by 119%, and nearly half of girls 5-8 years old want to be thinner. This is nothing short of a catastrophe. This is a full-blown epidemic and it is our responsibility to fix it. Every. Single. Damn. Adult. All of us need to participate to be part of the solution.
“Ok, well what am I supposed to be doing about it?” You might be asking yourself right now. First, get educated.
Eating Disorders: An Overview
An eating disorder is a serious mental health issue. Eating disorders are included in the DSM-5, just like depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. An eating disorder can be one or a combination of the following:
Anorexia Nervosa: Severely restricting food intake, intense fear of weight gain, obsession with behaviors to prevent weight gain.
- 4.2% of women and 0.3% of men will suffer from anorexia at some point in their lifetime
- Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among teenagers
- 33% will receive treatment, 66% go untreated. 4% will die.
Bulimia Nervosa: Self-induced vomiting, usually after consuming food, to prevent weight gain. Commonly manifests after binge-eating episodes, but bulimics can & will purge, even if there was no food binge.
- 4% of females and 0.5% of males will suffer from bulimia at some point in their lives.
- Only 6% of bulimics will obtain treatment, and 3.9% will die.
Binge Eating: Frequent episodes of consuming very large amounts of food, but is not accompanied by purging or behaviors to prevent weight gain. A feeling of being out-of-control during binges, along with shame, guilt, and often secretiveness.
- 3.5% of women and 2% of men will struggle with binge eating disorder at some point in their lives.
- Around 43% of binge-eaters will receive treatment, and 5.2% will die from health complications.
Disordered Eating: Includes excessive rituals, routines, or habits of food consumption that revolve around preventing weight gain, to the point where it interferes with one’s everyday life, and is detrimental to one’s health. Examples include laxative abuse, exercise addiction, night eating syndrome, purging disorder, obsessive calorie counting, and compulsive food rules/rituals.
- 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives to control their weight.
I’m 22 years old, and since the age of 12-13, I’ve had anorexic friends, bulimic friends, binge-eaters (sometimes myself), disordered eaters (also sometimes myself)… none of these disorders are a mystery to me. And chances are, if you have lady-friends, a wife, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers… every single one of us has been touched in some way by eating disorders.
How can I best describe the insidious power of the mass media – an omnipresent influence in nearly every young person’s life? This quote:
“Sticks and stones may break her bones, but the right words will make her starve herself to death.”
The media plays a huge part in the encouragement of eating disorders, by disseminating unrealistic & physically impossible images of women and men.
Women who are constantly exposed to images of impossibly perfect, “beautiful” women will judge themselves much more harshly. Additionally, men who are exposed to images of impossibly beautiful women in the media will, in turn, judge “real” women much more harshly as well. The same effect has been seen (with a lesser reach) among the male gender.
It is hugely important that we are educating little girls & boys in media literacy- that is- giving them the tools to understand that media is profit-driven, and not above manipulating it’s viewers for that sake of money, at the expense of social responsibility. Many young people have no idea the extent of photoshop in the images they’re consuming every day. Making them aware of how the media is essentially dishonest with nearly all of their images is a good first step to combating eating disorders. We need to tell them, “It’s not real.”
How to spot an eating disorder: All of these signs require judgement on your part. Only approach someone about these behaviors if you are confident they’re indications of an eating disorder.
- Makes frequent comments about being “fat” – despite body size. Singles out (real or imaginary) areas of the body with too much fat.
- Wears baggy or heavy clothes to hide body, even in hot weather or other unusual circumstances.
- Has unusual food rituals & rules, such as chewing a certain number of times, only eating foods of a certain color, counting out exact portions, etc.
- Evidence of purging behavior: Frequent trips to the bathroom after eating, signs/smell of vomiting or laxative use including wrappers, excessive use of mouthwashing/mints/gum & hand sanitizing/washing.
- Evidence of binging: Sudden disappearance of large amounts of food, hidden stashes of food and/or empty wrappers.
- Doesn’t eat in public, or commonly uses excuses such as “already ate”/”about to eat”.
- Growth of thick body hair, loss of menstruation, hair loss (scalp), brittle nails, skin of the fingers & teeth stained yellow by stomach acid.
How to approach in a helpful manner:
- Research and be educated about the suspected disorder before you start spewing potentially (and most likely) unwanted “advice”.
- Express your concern for her/his health, and then listen. Do not bring up specific examples of her/his eating behavior. Be supportive and caring.
- Make it as neutral as possible: Neutral setting, neutral emotions – make sure that neither of you are having a bad day, or are running emotionally hot before the conversation.
- Ask if s/he would be willing to see a healthcare professional, even if it’s just the family doctor for an informal conversation.
- If this is a first-time issue, keep it between the two of you. A large group “intervention” in the case of eating disorders is not best – s/he will end up feeling “attacked” and react defensively. If this is an ongoing issue, bringing in one or two other people to help is ok.
- Comment on her/his body – even positively. Do not make the focus on how s/he looks. Keep the focus on her/his health & well being.
- Attack the person with an arsenal of specific examples & times s/he has exhibited disordered behaviors
- Start pressuring her/him to eat, offer her/him food, insist s/he consume something in front of you.
- Invade privacy under the guise of “helping”. Do not read diaries, do not stand outside the bathroom listening for guilty vomit noises, do not “rat her out” to parents, other friends, or doctors.
- Do not give more help than you are qualified to give. Leave that to the professionals.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, the best thing you can do is surround yourself with a supportive, non-judgmental community. I found that by joining Cody– a health & fitness social network, but you should find a group that feels safe to you – wherever that may be.
Best of luck,