While the term “eating disorder” oftentimes conjures up the image of stick thin, bony, white, young women, individuals with eating disorders come in all different shapes, sizes, ages, and gender. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), national surveys found that about 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder (ED) at some point in their lifetimes. This number is very large, and they are not so obviously identifiable. The two most commonly known EDs include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and the stereotypes around these disorders are not always correct. For example, there are many people with EDs who are not underweight or do not purge.

NEDA outlines many varieties of eating disorders including anorexia nervosa (characterized by weight loss and difficulties in maintaining appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature, and distorted body image), bulimia nervosa (characterized by a cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviors, i.e. vomiting, misuse of laxatives, fasting, excessive exercise, etc.), binge eating disorder (recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food and feeling a loss of control during the binge, and experiencing shame, distress, and guilt afterwards, without using unhealthy compensatory measures regularly), orthorexia (an obsession with ‘healthy eating’ that it damages their well-being), other specified feeding or eating disorder, rumination disorder (the regular regurgitation of food), laxative abuse, and compulsive exercise. What links each of these variants is not just the disordered eating, but also a distorted way of thinking about one’s body and one’s self.

Given how common EDs are and that we do not always know who may be dealing with one, it means that we must be sensitive about what we say about how people look or what they eat because we don’t always know what is going on inside their head. A comment we make, even a compliment of someone looking thin, fit, or having lost weight, could exacerbate the problem, while choosing to ignore the issue and pretending that everything is alright is just as dangerous. Being a bystander as your friend is engaging in any kind of self-destructive behavior is always difficult. Finding a balance between addressing the issue while also respecting their privacy is necessary.

Further, while not everyone may have an eating disorder, disordered eating is very common in our society. Between the fad diets and the health and wellness movement, society places enormous value and power on food and exercise. This need for controlling our lives can be overwhelming, and the high expectations and perfectionism that we internalize can be factors that drive the development of an eating disorder. While I am not saying that we should remove society’s emphasis on healthy eating and exercise, I believe that a reduction in the obsession we have about these two aspects of life could be beneficial. There needs to be a balance between living a healthy life and enjoying things that may not be so healthy. Food and exercise should not dictate our lives, but rather should be placed in the background as an aspect that allows us to live long lives.

If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder and you want support or further information, call the National Eating Disorders hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or go to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website or the Academy for Eating Disorders website.

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