Eating Disorders

Eating disorders carry the highest risk of death of any mental illness.

Having an eating disorder, according to Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, is “like being born with a gun and life pulls the trigger.”

While other mental conditions are nothing to be trifled with, this is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and while Grefe says the dialogue about eating disorders is “turning the corner,” there’s still a lot more that must be said.

The discussion, she said, is now about treating eating disorders as the mental illnesses they are.

“You wouldn’t criticize someone with cancer. We need to be treating this like a tumor," Grefe said. "You take them by the hand and help them."

The ‘Gun’ in Eating Disorders

Eating disorders affect 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men at some point in their lives. The recognized types of eating disorders, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), include:

  • anorexia nervosa: the inability to maintain a minimally healthy body weight
  • bulimia nervosa: repeat bouts of binge eating followed by vomiting, inappropriate use of laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise
  • eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS): an eating disorder that doesn’t fit the specific criteria for either anorexia or bulimia

The National Institute of Mental Health states that eating disorders have a 10 percent mortality rate—the highest of any mental disorder. Long-term eating disorders can increase a person’s risk for osteoporosis (bone thinning), reproductive problems, and permanent damage to the kidneys and heart.

Like other mental disorders, eating disorders can include a genetic component. Often, people experience other conditions along with an eating disorder, especially anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“No one wakes up one day and chooses to have an eating disorder,” Grefe said. “Eating disorders rarely travel alone.”

The Bullets of Society

“If you saw a friend with a gun to their head, you’d talk them out of it,” Grefe said in an interview with Healthline. “Eating disorders are like having a gun to your head.” And sadly, society is ready and waiting to pull the trigger.

Critics are quick to blame the media’s portrayal of beauty—just review the Oscars coverage and note how many times reporters comment on someone’s attire or figure—but there’s more to it than that. 

“The Marlboro Man didn’t cause lung cancer, but he did encourage people to smoke,” Grefe said. “Some people—not everyone—will do anything to look like that. We can’t blame the media because if the media caused eating disorders, we’d all have one.”

However, society and popular culture do put pressure on people, especially the young, to look and act a certain way. Images of perfectly-sculpted men and women are all around us, and it’s up to parents to help their children navigate these messages.

“There’s a lot of chaos out there,” Grefe said. “There’s a lot of confusion out there, especially for young people.”

Unloading the Gun and Getting Help

Like all patients with mental illnesses, those with eating disorders can’t simply “snap out of it"; it takes help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the NEDA Helpline Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST at 1-800-931-2237 or visit nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information. 

Tonight, the Empire State Building will be illuminated with blue and green lights, the colors of the National Eating Disorders Association. Grefe sees this as a major milestone and further confirmation by the public that eating disorders as serious conditions that warrant attention and research funding.

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