Eating disorders are a very real, tragically common, and utterly terrifying part of our world. Their presence should be noted and understood as well as possible so that individuals suffering can get the help they need instead of the judgement that will offer no help at all, and possibly make things even worse for them.
I want to start this post by declaring loud and clear that I am NOT A DOCTOR. Nor am I a councilor, psychologist, therapist or professional in any way. I am simply a concerned person who believes that helping to spread awareness is one small thing that I can to do to help.
There are many forms of eating disorders, some of them much more serious than others. I am going to talk very briefly about some of the more prominent varieties and then touch down on a few that you may not even be aware of. This post is not, by any means, a complete resource, and it doesn’t cover all eating disorders.
The vast majority of my information has been sourced from the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) and if you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, I highly recommend you skip straight to this resource. I have used terms and language which I believe most people are familiar with, but if you would like more clinical definitions, please reference the site for further information.
This post is intended to help raise awareness of issues affecting people in society who we may each know. This goal is to help YOU understand the difficulties a person with an eating disorder faces, so that we can all be more open-minded and sympathetic to the devastation is causes. As humans, I have found, we are more likely to negatively judge something we don’t understand. The more we know, the more we can empathize, and the more care we can offer. This post is to help you learn more about a wide-spread epidemic that you may know very little about.
Before I jump into the definitions, I wanted to provide you with a few statistics to outline the reality of the situation:
- According to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15–24 years had an eating disorder.
Government of Canada. (2006). The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada 2006.
- [Anorexia Nervosa] AN has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – it is estimated that 10% of individuals with AN will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.
Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford.
- Four percent of boys in grades nine and ten reported anabolic steroid use in a 2002 study, showing that body preoccupation and attempts to alter one’s body are issues affecting both men and women.
Boyce, W. F. (2004). Young people in Canada: their health and well-being. Ottawa, Ontario: Health Canada.
- According to a 2002 survey, 28% of girls in grade nine and 29% in grade ten engaged in weight-loss behaviours.
Boyce, W. F. (2004). Young people in Canada: their health and well-being. Ottawa, Ontario: Health Canada
- Thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40% in grade ten perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of normal-weight (based on BMI), 19% believed that they were too fat, and 12% of students reported attempting to lose weight.
Boyce, W. F., King, M. A. & Roche, J. (2008). Healthy Living and Healthy Weight. In Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/dca-dea/yjc/pdf/youth-jeunes-eng.pdf.
- In a survey of adolescents in grades 7–12, 30% of girls and 25% of boys reported teasing by peers about their weight. Such teasing has been found to persist in the home as well – 29% of girls and 16% of boys reported having been teased by a family member about their weight.
Eisenberg, M. E. & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2003). Associations of Weight-Based Teasing and Emotional Well-Being Among Adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157(6), 733-738.
I hope I have your attention now, because those numbers are devastating. There are more statistics on the website, which I encourage you to visit.
There is a healthy way to encourage children to have a healthy relationship with food and their body. The obesity rate in Western societies is unforgivable, but body-shaming is not – nor will it ever be – the solution to the epidemic. I saved this one statistic for last, because it had a big impact on me:
Adolescent girls who diet are at 324% greater risk for obesity than those who do not diet.
(Stice et al., 1999).
Now that you know, here are some definitions to help you understand a bit more about what suffers life with on a daily basis.
Anorexia Nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders, and is the one most people are aware of. It consists of a variety of unhealthy behavior towards food and body image. It can manifest itself through severe restrictions on food consumption – essentially starving oneself, over exercising to compensate for any caloric intake, or self-induced purging after eating. It is also usually paired with an extremely destructive and disillusion self-image in which a person has an overwhelming fear of becoming “fat” or gaining weight and an unrealistic, overestimated vision of their body size and shape – they are unable to see their body as others see it, as it is in reality. Perhaps one of the biggest difficulties with this disorder is the fact that they often do not realize they have a problem. Their illness is very much in their head and this makes it very difficult for them to seek or accept help. The spend every hour of every day agonizing over the shape and size of their body, and try to starve the non-existent fat off themselves.
Bulimia Nervosa has a few things in common with Anorexia, but generally shows itself in a pattern of food restriction, followed by binge eating, followed immediately by purging – aka self-induced vomiting or the abuse of laxatives. It is also pared with a destructive and devastating body image.
Both of these disorders are incredibly dangerous and quickly lead to malnutrition and a host of other difficulties including, but not limited to: depression, anxiety, OCD, insomnia, cardiac arrest and thoughts of or attempts at suicide.
This disorder is complex and probably more common that one might think. We are programmed to think of people who exercise and people who are taking control of their health. And for most people, that is true. For many suffering from this disorder, it may have even started that way. For me, it is easiest to understand this as an addition to exercise. A person suffering will place such a high value and level of importance on having their body look a certain way, that their exercise routine will become the most important part of their life – going well beyond the boundaries of healthy and spiraling into a defeatist mindset where sleep, work and social events, relationships and even food don’t matter. Only exercise matters. And when a body is overexercised without proper attention being paid to nourishment, it will begin to break down quickly. While this disorder is not clinically diagnosed like some of the others mentioned, it can be just as dangerous.
This category is very important for me to discuss, as I have seen the definition be abused and misused in the media over and over. Orthorexia is the result of an obsessive focus on healthy food and habits. Sufferers lose focus on food as food and think of food only as healthy or not healthy. They restrict themselves to eating only what they have determined to be healthy and allow themselves only what they believe to be “natural” remedies for illnesses. One of the dangerous components to living with disease is the limitations on what is healthy. As with many disorders, it can spiral out of control quickly. An orthorexic eater may have delusional ideas of what is healthy, or may simply be misinformed. Regardless, their eating habits and choices become compulsive and can be very dangerous.
The media has grabbed a hold of this term and is throwing it around carelessly. This is horrifying to me for two main reasons: 1 – it trivializes the suffering of those living with this disorder and, 2) it has somehow made the quest to eat healthy into a disorder. The media has gone too far, challenging any healthy choices and diagnosing people who choose to make healthy decisions with a disorder.
There is a massive difference between a person who chooses their eating habits based on a working knowledge of what will be the healthiest, well-rounded and sustainable fuel for their body, and a person with a clinical disorder who obsesses over ever item placed in their mouth and consumed. The stress alone, is a considerable indicator of the difference between the two.
The reality that orthorexia exists and many people suffer from it, should not give the media license to threaten their audiences against trying to be healthy. Choosing healthy foods to create your eating plan should be something that we are all educated and encouraged to do in a safe and sustainable manner. I personally get incredibly frustrated by media’s attempt to polarize every conversation – trying to eat healthy is NOT a disorder. Claiming such is simply condescending to individuals who are trying to be healthy and hurtful and inconsiderate to people who are actually suffering from Orthorexia. I can’t even come up with a strong enough word to adequately convey my frustration, but I sincerely hope I have been able to express myself clearly.
Those are all the Eating Disorders I will discuss today. If you disagree with any point – and have any data to share with everyone – please feel welcome to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. I want to emphasis once again that I am NOT a doctor, psychologist, pychiatrist or health professional of any kind. I am in no way trying to imply that I know everything about eating disorders. I simply want to help raise awareness about their seriousness, and hope that we will all be able to notice signal behavior and provide help to those we come into contact with, when it is requested and required. More than anything, I want to reduce the negative judgements towards those who may be suffering from an eating disorder. Compassion is a much more effective use of our time and energy.