Unaware About Eating Disorder Awareness Week? You’re Not Alone
Eating disorder awareness is one of the key pieces to preventing eating disorders and connecting those suffering with support. Though you may not have heard of it before, every year, the last week in February is dedicated to spreading awareness about eating disorders. This year, Eating Disorder Awareness Week starts on February 27th and runs through March 5th.
The intention behind Eating Disorder Awareness Week is to help the public gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of eating disorders. So, of course, we will start this piece with some background on the different types of eating disorders, their signs and symptoms, and treatment options. Then we will tackle some of the challenges to eating disorder awareness and overview the role that Eating Disorder Awareness Week plays in dismantling the stigmas around this serious mental illness. Eating disorders can be incredibly isolating. Hopefully, by spreading some awareness, we can make it easier for those struggling to find the help they need.
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect one’s relationship with food and manifest in behavioral changes to eating habits. Depending on the type of disorder, these changes include restricting food intake, compulsively overeating, harmful compensatory behaviors, and/or obsessing about body weight and shape. Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, neurodiversity, or body shape and size.
The causes of eating disorders include psychological, genetic, and environmental factors. Because of their complexity, treatment isn’t a “one size fits all”. Luckily there is a range of support, expertise, and treatments that are available to help people find recovery. Below, we overview the five main types of eating disorders, including warning signs and treatment options.
Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder in which someone restricts their food intake because of a fear of weight gain. Acting secretive or preoccupied around food, having a distorted body image, and giving excuses around meal times are potential signs that you or a loved one is struggling with Anorexia Nervosa.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person has episodes of binge eating followed by harmful compensatory behaviors. Like many eating disorders, someone with bulimia nervosa may experience high levels of co-occurring mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, and their shame around their illness may cause them to act secretively.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder in which people experience episodes of extreme overeating. A binge eating episode often occurs rapidly, where the individual may feel like they have no control over their eating, and eat past the point of feeling full. People struggling with binge eating disorder often feel shame, guilt, and depression after a binge. Among U.S. adults, BED is the most common eating disorder.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
People that struggle with Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) have a hard time meeting their body’s nutritional and energetic needs because of their tendency to avoid certain types of food. This could be in response to sensory characteristics or a past traumatic experience with food. ARFID is also called “selective eating disorder” and is characterized by extreme pickiness in choosing food, little interest in food, and a lack of appetite. This may manifest in physical and emotional responses when presented with certain foods. While people with ARFID may experience weight loss, weight and body image are not typically factors of concern for the individual.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders
OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders) are eating disorders that have similar characteristics to one of the other diagnoses but don’t fulfill all the characteristics. For example, subtypes of OSFED include “atypical” anorexia nervosa in which a person exhibits most of the symptoms but may be within or above a “normal” weight range. Similarly, there are low-frequency diagnoses for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, as well as other disorders like purging disorder and night eating syndrome. These are more nuanced and less recognizable than other eating disorders, but they should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, they can still have serious health consequences, especially because they are more at risk of going unnoticed. Read more about OSFED here.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
If you or someone you love is suffering from any of these eating disorders, you are not alone! At The Alliance, we understand the complexities of eating disorders and how challenging it can be to ask for help. There is support out there to help you recover, and we can help you connect with resources and providers wherever you are.
Recovering from mental illness can feel like an uphill battle, and we understand that. But we want you to know that recovery is possible and there is life beyond eating disorders. The Alliance holds free, weekly, therapist-led support groups (both virtually and in-person in select U.S. cities!) for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their loved ones, which may help you feel less alone and more empowered in your recovery.
Additionally, there are treatment options for all levels of care, from outpatient to inpatient programs. Specifically, several psychological therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) have all been effective treatments for both eating disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and OCD. No matter who you are or what you are struggling with, The Alliance can help you find care and support. If you need support or resources, please call our free, referral helpline, which is staffed by licensed therapists, or text “ALLIANCE” to 741741 for 24/7 text support.
Why Aren’t We Talking About Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders, like many mental health disorders, have been riddled with stigma and shame, making them difficult to talk about. Unfortunately, the stigmatization of eating disorders creates a never-ending cycle. Talking about eating disorders can make people feel uncomfortable, and this silence further perpetuates their stigmatization. This discomfort extends not just to people who suffer from eating disorders, but also to their loved ones, support systems, and the general public.
Dangers of Eating Disorder Stigmas
The stigmatization of eating disorders can be incredibly harmful for several reasons. Our culture obsesses over dieting and policing peoples’ bodies, which both contribute to misinformation and misunderstanding about eating disorders.
1. Make it Hard to Ask for Help
As Brené Brown says in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Shame loves secrecy.” This speaks to the compounding challenge that shame poses. It often acts as a weighted blanket that sits on top of mental health disorders, making them hard to talk about. For people suffering from eating disorders, cultural and familial shame can make it hard to ask for help, even if they want to.
2. Limit Our Idea of What an Eating Disorder Looks Like
Though eating disorders affect people of all identities, socio-economic statuses, and body shapes, our society has limited what we think they look like to an emaciated, upper-class, white teenage girl. This is incredibly problematic because it increases the chance that disordered eating will go unnoticed in other populations—a trend that is supported by data.
In fact, people of color are much less likely to receive help and treatment for eating disorders though some demographics show higher rates of certain disorders. The trends extend beyond race. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, and transgender individuals experience elevated rates of eating disorders compared to their cisgender peers.
3. Downplay the Severity and Danger of Eating Disorders
We live in a very fatphobic society, which contributes to a dismissive attitude toward eating disorders. Often they are thought of as a diet gone wrong, a choice, or a bad habit to shake. These mentalities dismiss the life-threatening dangers of eating disorders. Additionally, they put the blame on the person suffering which can contribute to the shame or guilt they might already feel.
The Role of Eating Disorder Awareness Week
The pervasive stigmatization of eating disorders brings us to the importance of Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The general lack of awareness around eating disorders prevents accurate diagnosis and equitable access to treatment. By increasing eating disorder awareness, we can normalize asking for help and better recognize the severity of eating disorders when they show up in any type of body. At The Alliance, we want to spread awareness to support year-round eating disorder recovery. But, hopefully, giving specific attention to these issues during Eating Disorder Awareness Week will help jumpstart access to education and resources.
This year’s theme is “It’s Time for Change.” As a member of the Collaborative of Eating Disorders Organizations (CEDO), The Alliance is excited to come together and focus on the message that now is the time for more. More equity, inclusion, access, outreach, early-intervention, education, representation, advocacy, and awareness. Our community deserves so much more, and we are so much stronger together.
Highlighting the issues that surround eating disorder awareness will help the public more easily talk about these mental health disorders and lift some of the shame that people suffering from eating disorders tend to face. Hopefully, this increased awareness will lead to greater access to treatment and better prevention of eating disorders.
At The Alliance, we provide resources, referrals, and support to anyone struggling with an eating disorder and their support systems. Our goal is directly in line with the intention behind Eating Disorder Awareness Week: we want to raise awareness and end the stigmatization around eating disorders, all while promoting access to better care. If you need support with eating disorder recovery, reach out and we will work together to find the resources and care that best fit your needs.