It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Are you aware that more than 10 million American women and more than 1 million American men suffer from an eating disorder? Once you add in binge eating disorder, eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and subclinical disordered eating, that figure shoots up alarmingly.

Are you aware that 40% of new anorexia cases are in girls between the ages of 15 and 19? Most eating disorders begin as diets – diets are good, right? Everybody diet to be skinny, er, I mean healthy! – and spiral out of control.

Are you aware that the vast majority of people who suffer from EDs don’t get adequate treatment? Treatment, when it is available, is frightfully expensive and often not covered by insurance. There is very little funding devoted to research on EDs, despite how many Americans suffer from them.

Every year, I think, we become a little more aware of the prevalence and seriousness of EDs. Last year, when Pretzel Thins ran an ad claiming that “you can never be too thin,” people in New York City fought back, reminding the company that yes, you really can, and when you are it’s called Anorexia Nervosa. This year, the death of French model and long-time ED sufferer Isabelle Caro has reminded people what “too thin” looks like – terrifying, and deadly.

But that’s anorexia, which is pretty easy to spot, even if it isn’t easy to overcome. Bulimia and binge eating disorder are much harder to recognize, because they involve eating normally and then purging secretly, or eating large amounts, usually in secret. Because of this, bulimia and binge eating disorder can go on unnoticed and untreated far more easily, and for far longer, than anorexia can. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that only 6% of bulimics get mental healthcare.

Eating disorders not otherwise specified and subclinical disordered eating are even trickier, partly because they’re so normalized by our culture. It’s hard to spot the difference, sometimes, between a very strict diet and disordered eating – the difference being that one is done purely to lose weight and with a sense of being able to stop at any time, while the other is done for deeper psychological reasons and with a sense of compulsion. Unless you know someone extremely well or are observing them very, very closely, it can be close to impossible to spot the difference and to know when to be concerned.

Very strict diets are encouraged, mostly for women, in our culture. So too is a cycle of eating a large meal or “overindulging” over the holidays, then dieting and exercising to purge the overindulgence. This combination of overeating, purging and restricting is reinforced in the culture, but it can so easily slip over the line into an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

So my challenge to you this Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to go beyond the obvious. Go beyond “very skinny = eating disorder” and learn a little more about the eating disorders that don’t manifest in such a visible or noticeable way. And, as always, don’t just stop at awareness – spread awareness. Share what you learn, use it in your daily life, host an awareness event next week or next month or next year. Because once you’re aware of the prevalence and the danger of eating disorders, it’s important to act. In fact, once you really know the toll they can take on a person’s mind, body and soul, it’s hard not to.

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  1. Posted February 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I would actually say that dieting is, in and of itself, disordered eating. Other than the fact that dieting generally tends to make you gain weight in the long run and can damage your physical health, constant dieting or an extended diet of under 1500 calories can be extremely damaging to your mental health as well. And people diet, generally, for one purpose and only one purpose (and i’m separating dieting from healthy eating or HAES here) and that’s to alter their physical appearance for the approval of others due to social pressures and, indeed, social abuse.

    So I think we should really stop accepting the diet culture altogether.. when a friend is on a diet then it’s reason to be concerned.. dieting very often leads into disordered eating which can lead to an eating disorder and there’s no good/healthy reason to engage in calorie deprivation.

    This is a good post- great for bringing awareness that eating disorders happen to people of all sizes and not just the very thin. thanks for posting!

  2. Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    As a registered nurse who works 12-hour shift, my job is my eating disorder. It is not unusual to go an entire shift without taking a break AT ALL. Usually, I try to sneak in a quick 15-minute bite at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, after starting at 6:30 a.m.

  3. Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been trying to help a friend with severe anorexia for a long time now. Money/insurance/time is the main issue, and she won’t let me pay even though I’ve begged her to let me do so. Does anyone know of any good resources to get her help? She truly does need professional help, and when she has sought it out in the past she was told the proper treatment is hospitalization, but that just doesn’t appear to be an option.

    Are there any other options?

  4. Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    “But that’s anorexia, which is pretty easy to spot, even if it isn’t easy to overcome.”

    Many women who are anorexic, not just because they eat so little, but also because they clinically fit the disorder in terms of not menstruating, are not easily identifiable to most people in society. Many people I know will comment on anorexic women with the statement “But she is not that thin”. Men in particularly seem to have no idea what a healthy female body/weight is.

  5. Posted February 25, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    It’s also important to recognize that many people are of below average weight and do not have an eating disorder. It is insensitive to accuse a thin woman or man of being anorexic, even jokingly. Everyone’s body type is different, and likewise everyone’s healthy weight is a little different. I take care of myself and consider myself a healthy woman, so it is frustrating to hear people say things like, “God, you’re so skinny” or “girl, you need to eat.” Just as it’s no fun to be called too fat, it’s no fun to be called too skinny. Not everyone takes it as a compliment.

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