Learn how to help your loved ones who may suffer from any number of eating disorders.
For obvious reasons, heart health takes front stage in February — but few people know that February is also National Eating Disorder Awareness Month.
In the United States, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. A few other troubling statistics according to the National Eating Disorders Association:
- 50 percent of girls and women practice unhealthy weight behaviors, like skipping meals, smoking and taking laxatives to control weight;
- 25 percent of pathological dieters convert to a full-blown eating disorder;
- 20 million women and 10 million men currently living in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives;
- more people die from eating disorders than from any other psychiatric condition;
- half of all eating disorder deaths are from suicide; and
- a majority of patients with eating disorders have an accompanying anxiety disorder, mood disorder and/or substance abuse disorder.
In short, eating disorders are a serious mental health issue. The psychological complications can be crippling. The physical and mental side effects can be life threatening. But newer research uncovers more clues (such as the fact that many eating disorders are not chosen behaviors but genetically inherited disorders), and early intervention can make a big difference in healthy outcomes.
The better-known disorders are anorexia (food restriction and dangerous weight loss) and bulimia (heavy food consumption followed by efforts to purge the food or excessive exercise to lose the weight). But more obscure eating disorders are becoming more prevalent. These can include:
- diabulimia: the underuse of insulin in type 1 diabetes patients to control weight;
- avoidant/restrictive food intake: low food consumption, which disguises itself as picky eating;
- atypical anorexia nervosa: anorexia without the low weight;
- night eating syndrome: eating late at night, often binge eating, sometimes to fill in for lost daytime calories; and
- post-bariatric eating disorder: loss-of-control eating or food phobias after weight loss surgery.
Gina Susanna is a body positivity spokesperson who suffered in her teens and 20s with anorexia and obsessive exercise.
“For years, my body didn’t belong to me,” Susanna says. “It was my disorder’s. Signed and paid for with my own self-hatred; countless hours at the gym on almost zero food; a scrap of paper I kept in my calendar to proudly mark the number of calories I’d burned, far greater than what I’d consumed. My anorexia had had her brittle hands on me for years, and I didn’t want to admit it. She was with me when I tried on wedding dresses, forcing me to choose the one I felt least fat in. She would whisper in my ear every time I bought groceries. She would drag my eyes downward as I watched strangers walk past, comparing their thighs to mine.”
After a paralyzing, loss-of-control incident in which her husband simply offered to help her cook, Susanna found help in the body positive movement on social media.
“As women, we’ve been taught to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and feeling beautiful is almost a rebellious act,” Susanna says. “But why does it need to be that way? We need to stop comparing, and start complimenting. One of my most profound moments in therapy was when my therapist told me to think about how I would talk to myself as a child. Would I be mean to her? Would I starve her so she could fit into a dress? Would I tell her she’s not good enough, or that her body was wrong? No. I would tell her she’s beautiful just the way she is. I would tell her I love the way she draws, and how she sings, and that she tells great jokes. This is what we need to do for ourselves. Because we are enough, just the way we are. We just need to be able to see it.”
If you suspect your child or someone you love has an eating disorder:
- share your concerns with him or her openly;
- avoid making excuses or rationalizing behavior;
- don’t try to fix the problem yourself: listen but get professional help;
- set boundaries and rules;
- reinforce good health and strength versus size, shape and appearance;
- remove triggers, like scales and diet foods, from the environment; and
- get support: local and online eating disorder support group communities can be a lifeline for your loved one and you.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): nationaleatingdisorders.org
Eating Disorder Hope: eatingdisorderhope.com
The Body Positive Movement: thebodypositive.org
Gina Susanna’s website: nourishandeat.weebly.com