As we head into National Eating Disorders Awareness week (Feb 26th – Mar 4th), let’s take a minute or two to be real about eating disorders. Too often we think of an eating disorder as a young female who needs to stay thin for a serious ballet career as Natalie Portman darkly portrayed in the movie the Black Swan. Though this is an intense and fitting look at what an eating disorder may manifest as, it does not equate to everyday living where eating disorders often go unnoticed. Eminently, twenty million females and ten million males suffer from an eating disorder according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).
If millions of people struggle with an eating disorder chances are you know or knew someone that had a complicated relationship with food. Perhaps that seems strange to you as you love your pizza, cheesecake, and Chinese food runs. Maybe it sounds familiar as you plug your calories into an excel spread sheet to see if you have an allowance for dinner tonight. Either way, it is important to equip yourself with a few things to look out for in the event that you suspect yourself or someone you love to be struggling.
The DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) offers several criteria to help identify when weight loss isn’t just dieting, but rather a more serious disorder that can lead to death if not recognized. Some of these criteria include, but are not limited to:
- Restrictive caloric intake
- A disproportionate fear of weight gain
- A distorted view of one’s appearance/body composition
- Binge eating and purging (vomiting, laxative use, or excessive exercise)
These habits can cause a barrage of symptoms both physically and psychologically. Beyond just a thinner appearance, eating disorders can cause cardiac problems, muscle loss, kidney damage, black outs, hair loss, diabetes, deterioration of a person’s bones, and possibly death (NEDA). If the body does not have enough energy from food to function it can also lead to brain fog, irritability, social withdrawal, and hallucinations.
It is possible to suffer from an eating disorder at any age in life as there is no average time of onset. However, it has been noted that “…college students tend to be more vulnerable than their older counterparts” (Choate, 2013). This may be due to some of the changes that take place during the transition to college. For many students, heading to college means being far away from home for the first time; there are new responsibilities as well as new relational interactions taking place. This can cause a great amount of pressure for a young adult who might see their diet as the one thing they can control during all of these changes.
Even with this information, there is still one question. What should you do if you notice a friend or family member who might be struggling? Just as many police departments and neighborhood watch groups tell you, if you see something say something. A full blown group intervention is not always the best way to approach a loved one, but gracefully pointing out that you love them and are concerned is a good place to start. There are counselors, there are treatment programs, there is hope, and no one should have to struggle alone.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
Choate, L. H. (2013). Eating Disorders and Obesity: a Counselor’s Guide to Prevention and Treatment. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
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