Each year, the last week of February serves as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) develops a theme every year to raise awareness and debunk myths associated with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are serious illnesses, which can severely affect a person’s health. When these illnesses go untreated or ignored, they can often result in death.
There are three primary eating disorders––binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa––but as diet culture continues to grow, a fourth eating disorder, orthorexia, has emerged within the past few years.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of eating large quantities of food at once, followed by intense feelings of shame, which result in vomiting. This cycle involves feeling a complete lack of control and occurs on a regular basis until help is sought.
Bulimia nervosa is similar to binge eating disorder because it also involves vomiting. Bulimia nervosa involves recurrent episodes of binge eating accompanied by self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or other medications and fasting or excessive exercise.
Anorexia nervosa, perhaps the most commonly known eating disorder, involves an intense fear of gaining weight and severe restriction of food.
The newest form of eating disorder, orthorexia, while not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), was coined in 1998 as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. This particular eating disorder is difficult to understand in our diet culture, but individuals who suffer from orthorexia often cut out entire food groups, compulsively check nutrition labels or spend hours figuring out their next meals in order to avoid “unhealthy” food.
Along with the consequences eating disorders bring, many of those who struggle with eating disorders also fight a co-occurring condition such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others.
There are several common misconceptions concerning eating disorders, all of which create a serious stigma for those actually suffering through these illnesses. It is crucial for those who do not struggle to understand these disorders are not shallow or “stupid.” Even though sometimes the root of eating disorders can be image-based, they are often completely unrelated to body image or weight.
- Eating disorders are a choice.
Eating disorders are not a conscious choice. The first thing people must understand about eating disorders is they are illnesses. Patients do not choose illnesses.
Eating disorders are defined as biopsychosocial diseases, which means genetic, biological, environmental and social elements all can influence their development.
- Dieting is a normal part of life.
While sustainable, healthy changes in diet and exercise behaviors are good, eating disorders often occur in those who have taken dieting to an unhealthy level. This often leads to individuals struggling with other issues such as anxiety, depression, metabolic concerns and nutritional deficits.
- Eating disorders only affect girls.
Eating disorders do not discriminate based on gender. Women are often the faces for eating disorders, but the reality is there are other groups who are at a high risk to develop an eating disorder. These groups include athletes, those under high levels of stress and those with a mental illness.
These illnesses are serious, especially in our diet culture, and we need to address them. Just like mental illness, we need to eliminate the stigma associated with eating disorders and educate ourselves to better serve those who struggle.