Every year during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, local and national organizations sponsor events to raise awareness of eating disorders. The theme this year is "Everybody knows somebody". An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men may have a eating disorder sometime during their lives. Fortunately not all of these people are so severely affected that they need medical intervention.
Decades ago, the term eating disorder conjured images of starving teenaged girls. Now we recognize a wide variety of eating disorder behaviors, from outright anorexia to binge eating, which will soon be officially recognized as a separate diagnosis.
Medical understanding of eating disorders has progressed. Reading fashion magazines, dieting or dysfunctional parents are no longer considered stand-alone causes of eating disorders. Genetics and environment interact to push vulnerable people into an eating disorder. Anorexia is associated with perfectionistic thinking and OCD. Bulimia is frequently associated with depression.
The list of possible triggers for an eating disorder is long, and not everything is a trigger for everyone. Some common triggers are:
- a major life changing event, such as moving, losing a loved one, divorce, starting high school or college
- involvement in a body-conscious activity like dance, gymnastics, wrestling or running. Almost any sport could become problematic if a coach or teacher is critical about body shape or size.
- involvement with a peer group devoted to dieting, thinness and appearance.
- a social or family environment that condones "fat" talk: critical discussion about your own or other people's body size or appearance.
The good news is that effective therapy can work well for people who commit to treatment and who want to change. The key is willingness to change. It may seem strange, but eating disordered behavior can provide emotional, psychological or physical rewards for some people. Without some sense of reward, the person wouldn't pursue it. So the eating disordered person doesn't always agree that she or he needs to change. This is a source of enormous frustration for family or loved ones who see the obvious problems.
There are several ways to locate treatment options in your vicinity. EDReferral.com has a wealth of information and links to local resources. Another good resource is Something Fishy. Parents of a minor child suspected of an eating disorder should consult with the pediatrician and describe the warning signs, as pediatricians may not always be on the look out for those.