Eating disorders affect an estimated 75 million people worldwide… People of all ages, races, gender identities, financial backgrounds, sizes, and abilities can struggle with an eating disorder. Men make up an estimated 25-36% of eating disorders and transgender individuals are showing higher rates of eating disorders than cisgender (those who identify as the sex they were assigned to at birth) individuals. Unfortunately, many suffer in silence, ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, or unaware that help is even out there. Access to specialists or affordable treatment can also be a barrier for individuals seeking support. Many don’t recognize the severity of their issues with food and their body or realize they could have an eating disorder. Our culture has normalized having a complicated relationship with food and body. There’s also an inaccurate stereotype of who has eating disorders and what an eating disorder looks like.
The ‘Solution’ to the ‘Problem’
When most people hear of someone with an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, they often assume the person has a problem with food. This is understandable as eating disorders present themselves primarily as food-related behaviors. However, eating disorders are complex and unique to each individual and are much more complicated than that.
An eating disorder is a brain-based disorder characterized by abnormal food-related behaviors. These behaviors serve a function and while they seem like the problem to get rid of, there’s more underneath. Eating behaviors are often used as a solution to an underlying problem. They can help distract, avoid, or numb difficult emotions or take the focus off of challenging transitions or life events. They can be used as an attempt to temporarily relieve emptiness, loneliness, powerlessness, low self-esteem, not feeling good enough, or provide a sense of control when things in life feel so out of control.
Eating disorders can also present as having a problem with the body, but this isn’t so simple either. Our appearance focused culture plays a significant role in what is deemed as “acceptable” even though its narrow definition of beauty fits less than 5% of the population. This leaves many feeling like they need to change their body to feel like they ‘fit in’ or will feel good. Companies are cashing in on the insecurities they’ve planted in our culture because they can sell the “solution”. As of 2019, the US diet industry is worth $72 billion dollars and the US beauty industry is worth $93 billion dollars.
The phrase, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” comes from a fairy tale, and of course, fairy tales aren’t real. Neither is the image you see staring back at you when you look in the mirror when you have an eating disorder. Instead of seeing the true picture, you’ll see what your eating disorder wants you to see. It’s important to realize that although it may feel very real to you, it’s not the truth. We are so much more than our weight, what we look like, or the shape of our bodies. This is difficult given the culture we live in and the pressure we feel to appear a certain way, but it’s possible to improve our body image and put our time and energy into what’s most important to us without intentionally changing our body.
The Costs of an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders can have significant health complications and account for the highest rate of death of any mental health disorder. Up to 20 percent of people with anorexia die from their disorder, making it the deadliest mental illness there is. Bulimia and other eating disorders can also lead to sudden life-threatening complications. We will go into more specific information on the medical issues connected to eating disorders throughout this website.
In addition to physical complications, eating disorders often lead to psychological and social issues like depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, withdrawal from family, friends, and activities they once enjoyed. They take up a significant amount of time, energy, and brain space making it difficult for individuals to lead full lives. These conditions don’t only affect those who suffer from them; they affect those who care about them as well. It can be helpful for loved ones to get involved in treatment through family therapy or beginning their own individual therapy for support. There is good news, though! There is hope, healing is possible, and there is help available.
Recovery from an eating disorder requires professional help including medical care, psychotherapy, psychiatry and nutritional counseling, as well as support from friends, family members, and building community with others recovering from eating disorders. Some may need to go to an inpatient or residential treatment center to have the most support possible. These include around the clock care, medical treatment if needed, nutritional, individual, family, and group therapy along with meal support. Intensive outpatient therapy may be a good option for those stepping down from the inpatient level of care or those needing more than weekly individual and nutritional therapy.
With advances in technology, being able to work with a specialist or join an online eating disorder treatment group is becoming more available, increasing access for many. The road to recovery can be a long and difficult one, but it’s certainly worth the effort to be able to live a fulfilling, meaningful life.
With proper treatment, people can heal and recover from an eating disorder. We’ve developed this website to provide you with resources and tools to help you on your journey. Our mission is to educate people about eating disorders, including the causes, signs and symptoms, facts, prevention, and treatment options so if you recognize areas of concern in yourself or loved ones, you can get the appropriate help as soon as possible. This information isn’t a substitute for professional help but this can be a good place to get started. We hope you find this helpful and we wish you the best!
Updated by Molly Bahr – 1/2020