In the middle ages, members of the upper class induced vomiting after meals so as to consume more food immediately afterward. In the 16th century, ascetics of all kinds–including those who intentionally deprived themselves of food–were cast out as witches. Hundreds of years later, public awareness has advanced to the point where people from these examples would be identified as potential sufferers of bulimia or anorexia nervosa, but overall, eating disorders remain greatly misunderstood even in the present time.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is one of many groups trying to do something to change that. Formed in 2001, NEDA has overseen the creation of National Eating Disorders Week, which runs from February 23 to March 1 this year. NEDA will be featuring a variety of events and speakers scattered across the country over the next week, and is using the title “I Had No Idea” as the theme for 2014. This theme clearly speaks to the devastating effects of eating disorders that many are still completely oblivious to today.
The misconceptions about eating disorders are plentiful. For instance, while the majority of the public is aware of conditions like anorexia and bulimia, the National Institute of Mental Health lists a third eating disorder not as widely recognized as the others: binge-eating disorder. This disorder is present in those who regularly eat large quantities of food without the ability to stop. Disregarded by many who feel that an eating disorder only exists when these large quantities are purged after being consumed, binge-eating disorder is every bit as serious as the other two commonly accepted eating disorders, and is much harder to recognize.
It is also common practice to make eating disorder assumptions based on appearance, a practice that, as it turns out, is completely baseless. Eating disorders afflict individuals of all shapes and sizes, and not everyone in the overweight population struggles with an eating disorder any more than someone of a normal weight does, or someone who is underweight.
Additionally, eating disorders are easily masked. Someone with a severe eating disorder may appear to be completely under control during the day in front of friends and colleagues, only to find themselves at risk for binge-eating in private later. Whether the food consumption is excessively high or excessively low, those with eating disorders are likely to feel as if they are under a microscope when around others, and they will adjust their eating habits as needed to blend in. Expecting someone with an eating disorder to fit a certain kind of profile is just one of many reasons why eating disorders remain greatly misunderstood.
Perhaps the biggest misconception of all lies in the assumption that someone with an eating disorder only struggles due to a lack of self-control. The causes behind eating disorders are often not directly related to food, but rather rooted in deeper psychological issues and not something that can be fixed by simple diet and exercise. In fact, the majority of individuals who suffer from an eating disorder have attempted more than a few extreme diets, only to fail, feel guilty, and return to their previous ways; the cycle continues, in other words.
Eating disorders are not unique to females, and they are not a made-up attempt to get attention. They are very real, very dangerous, and very prominent throughout the world. While eating disorders remain greatly misunderstood for now, progress is being made, and public awareness is constantly going up. With increased levels of health education, perhaps more light can be shed on a troubling issue in the near future.
By Spencer Hendricks