Watch a few average commercial breaks on TV or flip through a magazine. Every other ad seems to be for a weight loss program or product. Between the weight loss ads, unrealistically-thin models sell everything from perfume to clothes to coffee creamers. With so much of our culture so obviously obsessed with weight, it’s no wonder that the prevalence of eating disorders is on the rise.
Eating disorders are a mental illness with potentially severe physical effects. Of all the mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. In fact, approximately 20 million women and ten million men in the United States suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point during their lives.
Although anorexia and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders, there are several others.
According to Eating Disorder Hope, an eating disorder is defined as follows:
“Eating disorders describe illnesses that are characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape.”
Anorexia nervosa, for instance, is an illness in which an individual restricts his or her food intake to a dangerous extent. Bulimia nervosa is an illness that involves binge eating followed by some sort of purging to avoid calories, such as intentional vomiting or the use of diuretics or laxatives.
In addition to anorexia and bulimia, other eating disorders include:
- Binge eating disorder, which is compulsive overeating without purging
- Pica, which is a compulsion to eat non-food items
- Rumination disorder, which involves swallowing, bringing back up, and re-chewing food
Pica and rumination disorder most often affect infants or small children. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are more common in teens or adults, particularly young women.
The effects of eating disorders can be severe and long-lasting.
Eating disorders aren’t usually the first thing people think of when considering causes of pain. However, the effects of eating disorders can cause complications that lead to pain, or even death.
Anorexia involves such restriction of food intake that its effects are those of starvation. Weakening of the bones and heart are often the first and most severe effects of anorexia. Weakened bones can lead to osteoporosis and easily-broken bones. A weakened heart can lead to heart-related complications, up to and including death.
Low white blood cell counts, low electrolytes, and irregular menstruation are all possible as well. These effects can leave the body vulnerable to infection, making it more difficult for the body to recover from any sort of injury or illness.
Bulimia’s effects are largely related to the purging that takes place after binge eating. If purging is done by vomiting, enlarged salivary glands, tooth decay, and gum disease are possible, along with inflammation of the stomach and pancreas. Irritation of the esophagus from exposure to stomach acid can lead to esophagitis. Some experts suggest that this can even lead to Barrett’s disease, which can in turn lead to esophageal cancer. Vomiting and some other methods of purging can also deplete the body’s supply of water and nutrients, which can lead to abnormal hearth rhythms, seizures, or muscle spasms.
Anorexia and bulimia are very distinct, different eating disorders, but it is possible for the two to overlap. If an individual is bulimic to the extent that he or she isn’t getting enough nutrients or calories, it’s possible that he or she could begin to experience some of the effects of anorexia, as well.
Binge eating often manifests as weight gain, since this eating disorder includes stretches of healthy eating (or restrictive eating), followed by binges of huge amounts of food. Therefore, many of the effects of binge eating are similar to the effects of being overweight or obese. Increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and joint pain or degradation are all possible.
National Eating Disorders Week is all about increasing awareness of eating disorders.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week) is happening from February 21-27 this year. The organizers of NEDAwareness Week are asking people to spend just a few minutes taking a quick screening test for eating disorders. The test, which was designed with help from Screening for Mental Health, Inc., is a series of simple, non-invasive questions, and the results are immediate and clear.
Consider sharing the screening test on social media or sending it to family or friends for NEDAwareness Week. Alternately, think about posting a quick acknowledgement of NEDAwareness Week on social media, perhaps with a few words of encouragement for anyone currently struggling with an eating disorder.
Learn to watch for the warning signs of eating disorders.
The signs of eating disorders can include:
- Thin or brittle nails or hair
- Yellowish or dry skin
- Growth of fine hair over the entire body
- Shortness of breath after mild activity
- Obsession with calorie or fat counting
- Smell, sounds, or other signs of regular vomiting
- Yellowed or stained teeth
- Intense fear of weight gain or guilt about body image
- Excessive exercise
Keep in mind that seeing one of these signs just one time doesn’t necessarily mean that someone you know has an eating disorder. Rather, a combination of different signs should cause you some concern.
If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, don’t confront him or her right way. Instead, do as much research as you can first, and try to understand how he or she must be feeling. If you’re fairly sure that he or she has an eating disorder, don’t ignore the issue. Bring it up in a private, non-threatening environment, and try not to be accusatory or harsh.
Ask questions, listen, and try to understand the person’s answers. Encourage him or her to get professional help from a physician, therapist, or counselor. Ask what you can do to help. When you’re trying to help your friend or family member, ask regularly whether or not you’re actually helping. If he or she says that you’re not helping but rather making things more difficult, change tactics and ask again later. Make it clear that, above all else, you’re there to support him or her, and clarify that you’re open to suggestions about how to do that.
Do you know anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder? Have you come across any examples of eating disorders in the media?