Over the years that I’ve been doing the show, I’ve had a number of guests who have come to bravely share their struggles with eating disorders. I’ve always been struck by how consuming and devastating these illnesses are. Those who suffer from them often struggle with them for decades and, in tragic cases, may die from the illness.
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I wanted to take some time to talk about eating disorders. I think addressing the topic is important not just because these illnesses are so damaging, but also because many people have a distorted sense of who is at risk for developing an eating disorder.
What’s wrong with our perceptions?
When someone first mentioned we were having a guest with an eating disorder on the show, I immediately thought we would be having a young woman in her teens to twenties who would be severely underweight. Did you think the same thing? That’s because that’s the mental image many of us have developed from the way the media covers eating disorders. Many physicians and health professionals carry the same mental image when they look for people who might be at risk.
Unfortunately, that mental image doesn’t come anywhere close to encapsulating someone at risk for an eating disorder. While women are more commonly affected, men are increasingly suffering from eating disorders. Men and women of all races and ethnicities are also affected and people from all social and economic classes are also susceptible. Importantly, our perception of the typical age is also off. According to a new study published last year, symptoms of eating disorders grew the fastest in women over age 45.
Finally, our image of the body of someone with an eating disorder is severely skewed. While those who suffer from anorexia nervosa can be underweight, those with bulimia and binge eating disorders can be normal weight or overweight. They may be grad students, successful business people, competitive athletes or stay-at-home moms.
How does this affect our efforts to combat eating disorders?
In all likelihood, the problem of disordered eating is much larger than we think. Many physicians and researchers in the field admit we’re only just starting to find out how widespread these illnesses are because past studies have studied the typical young female teen with anorexia nervosa. That probably means that many men and women struggling with mental illness have been flying under our radar because they don’t fit the right profile when they walk into the office.
How do I know if I have an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that distort body image, your relationship with food, the way you eat and your perception of your weight. If you’re concerned that your relationship with food, with your weight or with your body is unhealthy, you should seek help. An online screening can be a great place to start. You can also get more information on the National Eating Disorders Association website or call their helpline at 1-800-931-2237. Finally, discuss your concerns with your doctor. He or she should be able to link you up with resources that can help you move towards recovery.
What if I’m concerned about someone I know?
Those with eating disorders may hide them for years and brush off any suggestions from others that they have a problem. Don’t let that discourage you. If you’re concerned about someone, the best thing you can do is let them know in a loving and supportive way. Remember, you don’t have to help on your own. If you’re concerned and feel like trying to help is overwhelming, find support from someone you trust or a medical professional. Many resources are also available online to help guide you through how to best help someone you’re concerned about.
Eating disorders are terrible, life-altering illnesses that can damage both the mind and body. Fortunately, help is available and recovery is possible. The key is identifying those with the illnesses and those most at risk. Remember, no one is immune no matter what age, gender or ethnicity they are. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone you care about, take action.
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week website: http://nedawareness.org/
Online Eating Disorder Screenings: http://www.mybodyscreening.org/
National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237