The Hidden Burden of Eating Disorders
Kitty Finklea, RDN, AFAA-CPT
One in ten Americans will struggle with an eating disorder during their lifetime. Eating disorders are a serious mental health condition involving complex and damaging relationships with food, eating, exercise, and body image. This disorder can negatively affect physical health and has the second highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions.
Eating disorders cross all social boundaries, impacting people of all ages, sexes, genders, and races within all socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. An eating disorder is not a choice; it is a biological brain-based condition with complex psychological and social factors and is diagnosed and best treated by medical professionals.
There are five types of eating disorders: Binge-Eating Disorder(BED), Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Nervosa, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED). The causes can vary from person to person and include genetics, changes in diet, gut health, puberty/menopause, stress, trauma, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, self-image, weight/appearance pressure, comments about appearance or weight, and media influence. The incidence of eating disorders rose throughout the U.S. during the COVID pandemic due to increased stress and isolation.
While there are specific warning signs related to each type of eating disorder, general warning signs include a change in attitude or behaviors related to food, body size, and weight as well as increased control over food or extreme dieting. Other signs to watch out for include: withdrawing from friends and social activities, changes in personality (mood swings, irritability, depression, or lack of emotion), gastrointestinal issues (acid reflux, bloating, or constipation), body checking in the mirror several times a day, hoarding or hiding food, disappearing to the bathroom after eating, or over-exercising. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and isolation and can be a challenge to uncover, but paying attention to warning signs is the first step.
If you feel like you may have an eating disorder, opening up to someone you trust and talking to your medical provider are the first steps. Finding a counselor and dietitian is also an important part of the recovery process.
If you are worried about a friend or child, talking to them is important, even if they reject the conversation. Focus on your concerns about health, symptoms, or changes in behavior you notice and be open to listening. Be aware of the timing and place so they do not feel threatened or embarrassed. Do your research and be kind, objective, and non-judgmental during the conversation. Ask meaningful and respectful questions and show the person you care. Offer resources or schedule your child for a medical appointment to start the process. Early detection and effective treatment can help move a person into recovery more quickly and prevent the disorder from progressing to a more severe or chronic state.
Treatment for an eating disorder can be inpatient or outpatient and includes a team of medical, psychological, and nutrition professionals. Family and social support is also crucial for treatment and recovery.
National Eating Disorder Awareness week sponsored by The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is observed annually during the last week of February – this year on February 20-27. This initiative helps educate people and provide resources to help those in need. They offer a hotline to call, chat, or text, along with referral sources, screening tools, and an abundance of information and resources for all ages. Find them online at: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
There is always hope for those suffering with an eating disorder, and the quicker they receive help, the quicker they can recover from this devastating illness.