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National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Frequently Asked Questions

By District of Columbia Bar

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Eating disorders are considered a treatable illness that affect many children and adults in our society. In recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, February 21– 27, Yvette Mitchell LICSW, temporary D.C. Bar LAP senior counselor, wanted to take a few minutes to share her expertise and provide information about eating disorders.

Q:  What is an eating disorder?

A:  Eating Disorders can best be described as extreme attitudes, behaviors and feelings related to food and body image. The most commonly known eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. People suffering from Anorexia Nervosa have an intense fear of gaining weight, even when at a significantly low weight, and will restrict their food and/or fluid intake as a means to lose weight. A person suffering with Bulimia Nervosa experiences obsessive thoughts about their weight or shape, and will binge eat then engage in compensatory behaviors to rid themselves of the food. Compensatory behaviors may include purging, abusing laxatives, fasting, or excessively exercising. A person with a binge eating disorder will also eat large quantities of food rapidly and when not physically hungry, however they will not engage in the compensatory behaviors mentioned previously. While these are commonly known eating disorders, note that every person diagnosed with an eating disorder is different and may demonstrate any one or all of these behaviors. Eating disorders can be incredibly distressful and impact a person’s day-to-day functioning, as well as result in serious physical and emotional consequences.

Q: How common are eating disorders?

A:  As many as 20 million girls/women and 10 million boys/men in the United States have an eating disorder.  According to data provided by the National Eating Disorder Association, the age of onset of an eating disorder is typically 10 to 25 years old, with an estimated 40-60% of elementary aged girls reporting they are concerned about their weight. Additionally, females as young as six years old may begin to express concerns about their weight and size. While eating disorders often develop during younger years, it is possible for an eating disorder to develop at any age across the lifespan.

Q:  How might someone develop an eating disorder?

A:  Eating disorders may develop for a variety of reasons. Eating disorders often develop due to a combination of psychological, biological, social, and emotional factors.  Triggering events may include cultural pressures to achieve the “thin ideal,” family stressors, failure at work/school, social problems, life transitions, or in combination with other mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Eating disorders may offer someone a feeling of control in their life as they become hyper focused on their weight and shape, and distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings.

Q:  What are some eating disorder signs and symptoms that I should be aware of within myself, a friend, or a family member?

A:  Often when someone is suffering from an eating disorder, they begin to focus significant amounts of time and energy on meal planning, calorie counting and planning ways to restrict, binge, or purge food. In cases of Anorexia Nervosa you may notice that a person is losing significant amounts of weight rapidly or that a person is cutting out more and more food options out of their diet, due to feeling that these food options are “unsafe.” Additionally, someone may begin to isolate themselves from friends and family due to shame or guilt about their appearance or eating behaviors. A person may also become preoccupied with the shape of their body and weight and may begin to exercise obsessively, while also restricting, binging, or purging. While incorporating physical activity into life is a healthy practice, a sign that a person is exhibiting eating disordered symptoms may be if you observe someone reporting that they feel compelled to exercise, or that they are experiencing increased anxiety when missing a workout, or are continuing to exercise when sick or injured. A common misconception about people struggling with eating disorders is that a person is often within or below a specific weight range. This is certainly not the case. People suffering with an eating disorder are often of various weights, shapes and sizes.

Q: What are medical complications that can occur from eating disorders? Are they really that serious?

A:  Eating disorders are extremely serious and can be life threatening. Medical complications can include low blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, osteoporosis, swelling in the legs, feet, and hands, gastrointestinal disturbances, electrolyte imbalances, and heart failure. Due to the chronic nature of eating disorders, a person’s risk for suicidal ideation is increased.

Q:  I’m worried that my family member or friend has an eating disorder, how can I help them?

A:  If you are concerned that a loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder, one of the most important steps you can take is to talk to them about the behaviors and feelings they are experiencing. As a parent or concerned friend or relative, you can also help by modeling healthy self-esteem, body image, and healthy coping skills when managing life stressors. Lastly, you can also reach out to eating disorder mental health professionals, a registered dietitian or other medical professionals for assistance with navigating treatment options for your loved one. Research repeatedly indicates that the earliest interventions lead to the best outcomes for recovery. For more information regarding eating disorders, you or your loved one can learn more by visiting the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) web site, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org or by calling the NEDA helpline, 800-931-2237.

If you think that you or someone you know may need help with an eating disorder, please call the D.C. Bar LAP at 202-347-3131 for a free, confidential consultation.