3 Things to Know About Eating Disorders
Today marks the end of 2023’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a week dedicated to spreading the word about eating disorders and their impact. And given that, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 28.8 million Americans will suffer at some point from an eating disorder, this is critical work.
Eating disorders also aren’t discussed very often. You might hear a reference to anorexia, or hear bulimia mentioned in passing, but most of the time, people don’t bring up the severity of those disorders. NEDA also identifies many other eating disorders, including some I’d never heard of, such as ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) and rumination disorder.
In an effort to continue raising awareness, here are three things you should know about eating disorders.
#1: They can be fatal
When most people think about eating disorders, they don’t usually think about people dying from them. I didn’t know this until nine years ago when I first learned about National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and learned that, at the time, eating disorders had the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. And now, they’re the second-highest mortality rate, second only to opioid addiction.
Anorexia alone has a 10% mortality rate, with 1 in 5 deaths by suicide. And those between 15 and 24 who have anorexia have a risk of dying that’s 10 times greater than those of the same age without anorexia.
Those who don’t die are still severely impacted. Mary Pipher explained it well in her book Hunger Pains in a discussion of anorexic patients: “They didn’t expect to have fun or to find human interaction rewarding. Their lives had become relentless, grim encounters with scales and calorie charts.” (p.65)
All this is very sobering. It also makes me both sad and angry.
Sad for those who are suffering so much that they feel the need to risk their lives simply to meet an almost impossible goal. I feel sorrow, too, for their families and friends, who lose a loved one.
But my anger is even stronger. Our society spends so much time and effort convincing us to be ashamed of our bodies, telling us that we’re overweight because of a moral failing, a lack of willpower, or sheer laziness on our part.
Yet no one bothers to teach us that 95% of those who lose weight by dieting gain it back, that dieting can lead to eating disorders, or that those eating disorders could result in death.
#2: Many groups are impacted
It’s eye-opening to realize just how serious eating disorders can be, but I was also surprised to learn how many groups are impacted.
Most of the time, I think of eating disorders as being a problem for girls and women, although I’m aware that with the rise of social media, men are not immune, either. But I didn’t realize that the impacts were much broader.
As NEDA points out: “Misconceptions about who eating disorders affect have real consequences, leading to fewer diagnoses, treatment options, and pathways to help for those who don’t fit the stereotype. Understanding that eating disorders don’t discriminate is critical to making sure everyone has access to help and support.”
Groups impacted include:
Athletes: eating disorders impact more female athletes than male athletes, but males are also affected, especially if they’re in a sport that focuses on size and/or weight, such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, wrestling, and horseracing.
LGBTQ+ community: transgender people particularly experience higher rates of eating disorders, but other members of the community are also impacted, particularly as increasing stress is placed on LGBTQ+ people.
Men and boys: because so many people focus on women and girls for eating disorders, men and boys may feel isolated and unable to talk about their experience, which can lead to late diagnosis, or too often going undiagnosed altogether.
People of color: eating disorders are also often associated with white girls and women, but they can impact everybody, and people of color don’t receive as much help for eating disorders, especially African Americans
It’s important to understand that anyone – of any gender, age, ability, or any other demographic – can experience eating disorders. Only by recognizing this can those who are going through this hope to get treatment and recover.
#3: You can help
The good news, though, is that you can help.
If this information about eating disorders is news to you, take a little time to learn more about it, and then spread the word. Awareness is key, and the more people know about these eating disorders and can watch for warning signs and symptoms, the better.
You can also push back against our culture’s idealization of thin bodies. If you hear someone weight- or fat-shaming someone else, speak up. If you catch yourself having judgmental thoughts about people because of their size, take a look at that and try to reframe those thoughts.
If you have young people in your life, remind them that you care for and value them no matter their size. This is particularly important when you consider that girls as young as 6 begin worrying about their weight, and that, per NEDA: “up to 40% of overweight girls and 37% of overweight boys are teased about their weight by peers or family members.”
Your care may not be able to completely counter the weight stigma and bullying from other sources, but it will certainly help.
And if you know someone who has an eating disorder, or if you have one, know that there’s treatment available. This is not something anyone should try to tackle on their own.
It’s time for change
Eating disorders have impacted far too many lives for far too long, and the best way to start changing that is to make more people aware of these disorders. You can help do that by checking out and sharing the information from NEDA and the events they hosted this past week, including some today.
Although I think it will be a long time before we can stop worrying about eating disorders, every action and step counts. I hope you’ll join me in helping to make a change.