National Eating Disorder Awareness week provides an annual opportunity to educate the general public about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, as well as the reality of living with them and the stigma and challenges survivors of these illnesses endure. NEDA week comes to a close on Sunday, March 6th, but the importance of continuing to educate people about eating disorders remains.
Though eating disorders have existed longer than we can comprehend, they’ve only recently come into public knowledge, and for many people, their knowledge is based on outdated ideas from previous theories or even stereotypes. It’s important to address the myths and misconceptions regarding eating disorders, so that those struggling with them can feel understood and seen.
What is an eating disorder? There are many, but the ones you probably know best are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, as well as binge eating disorder. If you’re someone that has done your research, you may have also heard of orthorexia nervosa – a newly defined eating disorder that is only just now being studied in the world of clinical psychology. This article will focus on the first three mentioned, but there are many other disorders worth researching and educating yourself about.
Anorexia nervosa is defined by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) as a disorder characterized by a number of symptoms, such as: weight loss, distorted body image, restrictive eating habits or a preoccupation with counting calories. The biggest red flag is not even necessarily an obsession with weight loss, but an intense fear of weight gain. A common misconception about anorexia is that the sufferer starves themselves, but this is rarely the reality. Most anorexia sufferers do eat – they just don’t eat enough. Another stereotype is that all anorexia sufferers are underweight. While weight loss is a common symptom of anorexia, anorexia is a psychological disorder with many physical complications. People of any body type can have anorexia inside their mind regardless of whether or not they experience weight loss or physical changes to their body. (This is often defined as “atypical anorexia.”) The stereotypical image of someone with anorexia being visibly underweight is particularly harmful because anorexia can go unseen and unnoticed in those that don’t fit the general image. This could even lead to medical professionals not giving a proper diagnosis.
Bulimia nervosa, which can often co-occur with anorexia, is defined by NEDA as a disorder characterized by the cycle of “bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.” NEDA’s description addresses something very important for people to understand: self-induced vomiting is not the only bulimic behavior. Those struggling with bulimia may also resort to misuse of laxatives or weight loss pills, compulsive exercise, or fasting. Like anorexia, one definitive characteristic can be an intense fear of weight gain and a compulsive need to avoid it.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, according to NEDA. They define binge eating disorder as having “recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures to counter the binge eating.” If an individual were to perform the last habit mentioned, that would be defined as bulimia instead. Because of constant stigma and shame surrounding food and weight perpetuated by diet culture in the media, those suffering with binge eating disorders may struggle with shame about their disorder and not reach out for help. It is very important to understand that those with binge eating disorders are not simply gluttonous or lacking discipline, but suffering from a psychological disorder equally as important as the previously mentioned eating disorders.
A common myth surrounding all of these disorders that it is vital to combat is that they are choices. Anorexia sufferers do not choose to continue restricting, nor do bulimia sufferers choose purging habits, nor do binge eaters choose to continue bingeing. This statement is as untrue as saying those that are depressed choose to be depressed. Eating disorder sufferers do not wake up one day and decide to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders develop over time due to a combination of environmental factors and psychological and possibly even neurological factors, as recent studies are showing that there is likely a genetic predisposition to eating disorders, just as there is to diabetes and other diseases. Many people with eating disorders don’t even realize they have one due to all the myths and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. It is so, so important to understand the truths about these disorders and watch for signs and symptoms in ourselves and our loved ones, and constantly ask ourselves if what we’re thinking about our bodies or our eating habits are healthy. If you find yourself constantly obsessing over food, weight, or body image, you are likely at risk for an eating disorder, and if you identify with any of the symptoms previously mentioned, it is imperative you seek out help. Early intervention is key in eating disorder recovery, and the earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the less risk there is of relapse.
If you suspect yourself or a loved one has an eating disorder, or you simply want to educate yourself further, NEDA’s website is a great start for finding resources on the subject so you can identify signs and symptoms, find treatment, and more. NEDA also has a helpline you can call at (800) 931-2237, and a chat feature on their website.