Honoring National Eating Disorder Awareness Week
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that affect a person’s relationship with food and their body. People who have eating disorders usually also have very stressful thoughts and emotions, and as a result, cause harm to their body. The National Eating Disorders Association honors Eating Disorder Awareness Week this year from February 21 – February 27, 2022. This week—and this blog post—is dedicated to bringing awareness to these serious, life-threatening conditions that affect millions of Americans and their families each year.
Types of Eating Disorders
Some of the most common types of eating disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Anorexia is characterized by distorted body image, causing someone to maintain or lose weight by extreme dieting, starving themselves, or over-exercising.
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Binge Eating Disorder often causes people to restrict their food for a long time, then eat larger amounts of food than normal in one sitting and feel guilty or shameful.
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Bulimia is characterized by a cycle of binge eating and purging to ‘make up’ for food eaten. Examples of purging include vomiting, taking laxatives, over-exercising, or fasting to avoid weight gain after eating or bingeing.
- Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
- ARFID might appear similar to Anorexia Nervosa by the amount or type of food consumed, but usually does not involve fear of body shape or weight changes. Those affected by ARFID often lack nutrients and lose weight because they are not interested in food, certain tastes, smells, or textures, and/or are afraid of choking, nausea, or allergies.
Why is it important to know about eating disorders?
Eating disorders are deadly.
Eating disorders are one of the deadliest illnesses, right behind opioid addiction. This is because eating disorders usually involve negative thoughts like distorted body image and irrational fears of food and weight. Eating disorders also often exist in the presence of other mental health conditions like substance abuse, anxiety, and depression.
Eating disorders do not discriminate based on gender, race, or body type.
Society usually describes an individual affected by an eating disorder as a thin, white woman. While this group of people is indeed affected by eating disorders, no groups are exempt from risk of illness. In fact, marginalized people might be at greater risk for some conditions and are likely receive less treatment due to stigma. For example, Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to show bulimic behavior, such as bingeing and purging. Transgender people experience eating disorders at significantly higher rates than cisgender individuals. Various studies show the risk of death for males with eating disorders is higher than it is for females.
Additionally, it is important to remember that eating disorders are also not defined by just one body type or having an extremely low weight. Many people who experience bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and other eating disorders are not at a ‘low body weight’ by medical standards. For this reason, we cannot diagnose an eating disorder or assume someone is healthy or unhealthy based on what they look like.
What are some signs of an eating disorder?
- History of dieting
- Having a history of dieting is closely connected with developing binge eating and engaging in other disordered eating behaviors.
- Negative energy balance
- This means ‘burning’ more calories than you actually eat. This is usually due to someone trying to lose weight through limiting the type or amount of food eaten or partaking in intense exercise.
- Unhappiness with body image
- People who don’t like their appearance have distorted views of how they look, and/or are striving for an unrealistic appearance.
- This refers to those who have extremely high expectations for themselves, always followed rules growing up, or only feel there is one right way to do things. Consequently, this typically translates into strict food choices and is one of the strongest risk factors for an eating disorder.
- Weight stigma
- This refers to discriminating against or stereotyping people based on their weight, thinking that thin bodies are healthy and fat bodies are unhealthy.
- Having a close relative with an eating disorder or mental illness
- If you have a family member, like a sibling or parent, with an eating disorder or other mental illness, you may be at higher risk of developing one yourself.
What can I do to help?
It is important to remember that anyone could be struggling with an eating disorder. A respectful relationship between a person and their body is key to finding peace with food. This starts with each of us working to end weight stigma and becoming aware of how we view and treat other bodies—including our own!
Below are some tips for helping those struggling with disordered eating or body image issues:
- Avoid discussions about food, weight, and eating, especially your own habits or those of others. This only prolongs the focus and obsession over food and bodies that exist in our society.
- Focus on positive personality traits in the people you interact with. Compliment other great qualities they possess that have nothing to do with appearance (ex: “You are such a caring person!” vs. commenting on how someone looks).
- When in doubt, ask. If you feel that a loved one might be struggling with an eating disorder, ask how they are feeling and how you can support them. Instead of telling the person what they should do, listen openly and validate their feelings.
- Continue to educate yourself on eating disorders. More signs and symptoms can be found at: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline, call (800) 931-2237, or reach out to an eating disorder specialist in your area.
Our team of experienced registered and licensed dietitians at Avance Care focus on a wide variety of health concerns including disordered eating. Many of our primary care providers also share expertise in treating eating disorders.
Find support through Nutrition Services at our Avance Care Chapel Hill location, an independently owned primary care practice that offers comprehensive and personalized primary care for the whole person in an inclusive, affirming, and non-judgmental environment. Our Chapel Hill location also practices a weight-inclusive and Health at Every Size® approach to care and offers medical assessment and management of eating disorders with a collaborative, team-based approach to care.
Lauren Harrison is a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorder treatment and recovery. Being alongside patients during their journeys to recovery from an acute or chronic eating disorder only strengthens Lauren’s passion for empowering others in building, mending, and maintaining positive relationships with food while adequately fueling their bodies for life.