Did you know that this week, starting last Sunday, February 21st, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week?
Every year, the National Eating Disorders Association promotes this week to bring awareness to the dangers of eating disorders, and to challenge the way the public perceives these illnesses. Together we can prevent eating disorders and increase the understanding of weight and body image!
The pressure to look a certain way has only gotten worse in recent years, with the rise in popularity of social media “gurus” who appear to have “perfect” lives– who promote clean eating, juicing, or achieving the “thigh gap”. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, many believe that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice and can be controlled. But eating disorders are caused by so many factors: genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. People of all ages, sex, and ethnicity can experience an eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa. This is characterized by weight loss often due to excessive dieting and exercise, sometimes to the point of starvation. People with anorexia feel they can never be thin enough and continue to see themselves as “fat” despite extreme weight loss.
Bulimia nervosa. The condition is marked by cycles of extreme overeating, known as bingeing, followed by purging or other behaviors to compensate for the overeating. It is also associated with feelings of loss of control about eating.
Binge eating disorder . This is characterized by regular episodes of extreme overeating and feelings of loss of control about eating.
Eating disorders tend to develop during the teenage and adult years, and are more common in women. No one knows for sure the exact cause, but eating disorders seem to coexist with other issues such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. A preoccupation with food can also be a way to gain control over an aspect of life, for some people.
Although it can start out as simply eating more or less than usual, the behavior can spiral out of control and take over, and can turn into a serious medical problem that can have long term health consequences if left untreated.
Myth: It’s not a real disease.
Recent research has shown that people with anorexia have a number of complex brain circuits that show changes in activity compared with healthy people. The insulas (the parts of the brain associated with pain and hunger) are dulled and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (which exercises self-control) is overactive. More research is needed to determine if anorexic habits rewire your brain, or if its the brain that causes eating disorders in the first place.
Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.
Just as physical illnesses are not a choice, mental illnesses aren’t either. Those who engage in dieting have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. We’re often pressured into these gateway behaviors in the first place. Eating disorders come with a high psychological distress. People who have Binge Eating Disorder or bulimia do not enjoy purging. They are addicts, and with any addiction, abstaining can lead to withdrawal. People with anorexia often feel they do not have a choice, as they are under a huge amount of stress regarding their body image.
Myth: If you don’t have an eating disorder, your eating is not disordered.
About 30 million people in the U.S. will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Even more than that experience disordered eating, defined as a wide range of abnormal eating behaviors, including dieting, binging, skipping meals, using laxatives, or feeling guilty after a meal. Disordered eating may be “abnormal”, but it’s so common in our society.
About 45 million Americans go on a diet each year and spent $33 billion annually on weight loss products. Feeling guilty, binging, cravings, and skipping meals or “fasting” are common dieting techniques that typically fail. Those who diet have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
If you find yourself making food choices based on a set of rules, that is disordered. Having feelings such as guilt about food is also disordered. Eating based on anything other than what your body says it needs is disordered. Body acceptance and intuitive eating are lifestyle choices that can help get rid of the food rules and guilty feelings.
Worried that you or someone you love may have an eating disorder? Screening for Mental Health, Inc., the pioneer in large-scale mental health screenings for the public, has partnered with the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), for the third consecutive year, to provide free, anonymous eating disorder screenings at http://mybodyscreening.org/ as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, held this year, February 21-27.