Today is the first day of National Eating Disorders Week (Feb 23-March 1) and although it is designed to bring attention to the devastating effects of eating disorders, those who have anorexia, bulimia or a binge eating disorder may wish they could run and hide for the week rather than face the increased scrutiny. Already living with intense, seemingly irrational fears of weight gain, their coping methods of choice and the low self-esteem that seems to come hand-in-hand with eating disorders, the added attention may be difficult to handle. This makes it even more important for people to become educated about the issue and to lend unconditional support to those who are afflicted.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in the United States is the leading non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of those with eating disorders and supports individuals and families that are affected by the illness. NEDA sponsors the week and their stated goal is to “focus on prevention” and help victims and family members gain access to treatment. The group also advocates for increased research into eating disorders. They are concerned not only with preventing the disorders but also in taking the proper care of people who may not have the ability to see clearly how their own illness is putting them in danger.
Eating disorders can be life threatening and according to NEDA they are “extremely complex” illnesses that can arise from numerous “biological, psychological and social factors.” These multifactorial disorders wear many faces and they are each in their own way life threatening. Also, the side effects of an eating disorder are detrimental to a positive quality of life if left untreated.
Those who have eating disorders often live in fear of being “found out”, have extremely low self-esteem and a true misperception about their body shape, size and weight. Because of this, they struggle to have a healthy relationship with food and to cope with the psychological repercussions of low self-esteem, shame and feelings of guilt.
Although not all eating disorder symptoms fit neatly into one category, certain self-destructive patterns have been identified. Anorexia is the misconception of obesity that can result in deliberate self-starvation and an obsession with body image. Bulimia Nervosa is a disorder that involves eating extreme amounts of food and then self-inducing a vomiting purge to prevent weight gain. Finally, a generalized eating disorder results in binge eating with extreme loss of self-control, which reinforces a negative self-image that can keep the cycle of binge eating going.
It used to be thought that eating disorders primarily affected only women and teenage girls. However, Doctor Alix Timko, director of the Eating Disorder Research Program at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia has been studying the incidences of eating disorders in both genders. It is now known that eating disorders do occur in men and teenage boys. This is something that parents especially need to be aware of, as it is possible that sons are better at concealing an eating disorder, especially if parents carry the misconception that boys are not affected by them.
Much progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders. However, there is still an estimated 25 million Americans who have been diagnosed and an unknown number of people with eating disorders who are dealing with their illness on their own. It will take much more than one week a year to fully educate and raise support for those who are in need. Sadly, many with these eating disorders live in intense fear of weight gain, suffer from depression, low self-esteem and cannot truly see their own bodies for what they are. Some even lose their lives to their illness. Perhaps if awareness is raised people will learn to look for the symptoms and have the capacity to act as advocates for those with eating disorders who have not yet been able to gain control over their illness.
By Alana Marie Burke
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