February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month. Did you know that disordered eating is a mental illness and it comes in many forms beyond anorexia and bulimia? What all eating disorders have in common is an obsession with food and/or physical appearance. Because people often try to keep their disordered eating a secret, it can be hard to know if someone you know is suffering. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness so we can all do our part in creating a culture that embraces body diversity and celebrates the whole person—not just how one looks.
Types of eating disorders
- Binge eating disorder (eating large quantities of food and feeling ashamed or guilty afterward)
- Bulimia nervosa (binge eating with self-induced vomiting)
- Anorexia nervosa (involves weight loss, difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight, distorted body image)
- Orthorexia (obsession with proper or “healthy” eating)
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (limitations in the amount or types of foods consumed)
- Pica (eating non-food items, like dirt, hair, etc.)
- Rumination disorder (regular regurgitation of food that may or may not be spit out)
- Laxative abuse (repeated, frequent use of laxatives)
- Compulsive exercise (extreme, excessive exercise that interferes with other areas of one’s life)
- Other, non-specified eating disorders
Busting some myths about eating disorders
Eating disorders affect the mental and physical wellness of about 30 million Americans, yet there are still many misconceptions surrounding them.
Myth: Only women suffer from eating disorders.
Men can feel pressure to look a certain way, too. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), between 20 and 30 percent of people struggling with eating disorders are male. Eating disorders can affect people of any gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, ability, or ethnicity.
Myth: You can tell by looking at a person whether they have an eating disorder.
Someone’s size has nothing to do with it. Although many people associate eating disorders with restrictive eating patterns, binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder in the US, and even those of a “normal” or “healthy” body weight may be suffering.
Myth: Eating disorders are a lifestyle choice.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. One of those social factors is a diet culture that promotes weight stigma. Weight stigma is when there is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight, including the “idealization of thinness,” according to NEDA.
Eating disorder awareness tips for everyone
Beyond spreading awareness, there are things we can all do to be part of the solution. One is to refrain from commenting on or complimenting anyone’s appearance. NEDA says, “The research is clear: Overemphasizing weight can encourage disordered eating and have counterproductive effects.” Instead of mentioning how someone looks, focus instead on their talents, intelligence, willingness to help, etc.
Purdue University’s Counseling Center has other tips to help prevent eating disorders before they start. They recommend living a healthy lifestyle through nutritious eating and physical activity, with a focus on well-being rather than appearance. Beyond the physical, they recommend challenging misleading messages about beauty, understanding that self-worth is not defined by how you look, developing realistic expectations of body image, and accepting your own physical characteristics.
Getting help for eating disorders
If the way you eat or think about food interferes with your life, you may be experiencing disordered eating. Help is available. You can visit your campus counseling center to see what resources they offer for people with eating disorders. Or you can call NEDA’s toll-free, confidential helpline, which is open Monday–Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (EST) (closed on holidays): 1-800-931-2237.
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.) 5 myths about men with eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/5-myths-about-men-eating-disorders
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Busting the myths about eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/busting-myths-about-eating-disorders
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Eating disorders in men and boys. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/research-on-males
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Information by eating disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/information-eating-disorder
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Our work. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/about-us/our-work
National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Weight stigma. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/weight-stigma
National Eating Disorder Information Centre. (n.d.). General information. Retrieved from https://nedic.ca/general-information/
National Institute of Mental Health. (February, 2016). Eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml
Purdue University Counseling Center. (n.d.). National Eating Disorder Awareness Month. Retrieved from https://www.pnw.edu/counseling/neda-month/