If you or a loved one had an eating disorder, would you be able to recognize it?
While stereotypes might indicate that people with eating disorders are malnourished and skinny, the full spectrum of eating disorders goes far beyond these preconceived notions.
The Academy for Eating Disorders is trying to bust the stigma and improve knowledge of this disease.
The advocacy group has released a new document titled Nine Truths about Eating Disorders.
Many people may think a person with an eating disorder would be someone all “skin and bones” or someone who carries a lot of extra weight.
But experts say this doesn’t reflect reality.
Dr. Dina Hirsch, a senior psychologist at Syosset Hospital’s Center for Weight Management on Long Island in New York, told Healthline it’s important for physicians to recognize this truth.
“Normal weight patients with eating disorders such as atypical anorexia or bulimia nervosa are often commended for their weight loss without discussion of how it was accomplished,” she said.
“Both of these illnesses have physical and mental health consequences just as serious as anorexia nervosa but are frequently missed by medical professionals who are overly focused on praising them for weight loss,” she added.
The Academy for Eating Disorders’ document points out that families can be a source of strength for people dealing with an eating disorder.
They can also serve as an ally for both the person and doctors alike.
According to Dr. Shawna Newman, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, family members may feel overwhelmed when a loved one is dealing with an eating disorder.
“It’s really tough when parents are scared,” she told Healthline. “It’s tough to reel in the emotion.”
But the same familial closeness that can cause anxiety can also help identify problems, assisting doctors in working toward a solution.
“The great thing is that people can go to a doctor and have a relatively nonjudgmental assessment and feedback,” explained Newman. “You can easily accompany a family member to their appointment and speak to the doctor about staying on the right track with nutrition.”
To some, an eating disorder may seem like a minor roadblock, one that’s easy to get over.
But because these disorders affect a person’s psychological well-being, it isn’t that simple.
Dr. S. Bryn Austin, president of the Academy of Eating Disorders, said in a release that the messaging in pop culture and society at large can often spur an eating disorder that can be tough to beat.
“In addition, frank discrimination in healthcare against people living in larger bodies takes a direct and sometimes devastating toll on health and well-being regardless of whether or not a person believes the stigmatizing messages,” she said.
An eating disorder may start off as someone choosing to starve themselves so they can fit into smaller clothes.
But once the disorder has taken hold, it’s no longer a choice.
“It’s so challenging when you have an eating disorder because food is necessary. We don’t get away from it. We’ve got to eat to live,” said Newman.
Newman said that when a person has gotten themselves to a point where their brain is effectively rewired to think differently about how they look, it’s similar to trauma.
“Eating disorders come in more than one flavor. The calorie restriction type in which people seriously restrict their intake is very common in teenage girls. But boys can be affected too,” said Newman.
There’s truth to the notion that young women are the highest-risk group for developing eating disorders, but that doesn’t mean that men — or any other demographic group — are immune.
According to statistics, about 2 percent of men will deal with a binge eating disorder at some point in their lives.
There’s no shortage to the health risks that eating disorders can carry.
The Academy of Eating Disorders released notes that the mortality rate for eating disorders is second only to opioid use disorder when it comes to psychiatric illnesses.
According to a 2014 studyTrusted Source of 1,436 people with eating disorders, almost 12 percent had attempted suicide at some point while 43 percent had a history of suicidal ideation.
Various benchmarks, such as body mass index, give us a rough idea of what we need to do in order to be healthy.
But the social and physiological determinants of health are tricky to pin down.
“There are many factors that go into it,” said Newman. “Different people have different genetics. Biology isn’t just what you’re consuming, but it’s also that every person in every family has different strengths that can cause different kinds of weight.”
“Weight is very much influenced by genetics, but it can also be influenced by cultural factors, as diets are different in different cultures, and there are different kinds of access to food,” she explained.
While the influence of genetics on health and eating disorders can’t be denied, genes are hardly the end-all in terms of prediction.
Eating disorders can be spurred by a person’s perception of what their body should look like — often influenced by images on social media or television.
Sometimes things can be exacerbated by preconceptions from peers or even doctors, said Hirsch.
“It’s imperative that we address weight bias by educating physicians on the nine truths — teaching them that eating disorders affect people of all shapes and sizes, that positive body image promotes health rather than the contrary, and that dietary restriction strategies can increase the risk of developing eating disorders,” she said.
“Physicians also need to stop judging and blaming patients for their weight,” she added.
Anyone who’s tried to change their eating habits knows that it isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch.
The same goes for people with eating disorders who are trying to revert to healthier eating habits.
“The idea that there’s something wrong about your body is very tough to get past,” said Newman. “It can take a long time. You can change your behaviors and re-train, but to change your core belief is very challenging.”
While it may be a challenge for someone to lose their eating disorder, it’s certainly not impossible — particularly when the person, health professionals, and loved ones are all pulling in the right direction.
“Weight-related issues should be treated like any other health issue — with compassion, sensitivity, and concern — and not judgment, blame, or oversimplification,” said Hirsch. “Only then will we be able to address one of the nation’s leading health problems — obesity — and decrease the rate of eating disorders.”FEEDBACK: