Understanding Eating Disorders
This week, February 22 through February 28, 2009, is NEDAwareness Week, the largest annual eating disorders outreach effort in the United States, sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Most people are unfamiliar with this national event, let alone with eating disorders themselves.
Living with an eating disorder is often a very private struggle, which might stem from the fact that eating disorders are generally misunderstood in our society and therefore seem easier to hide rather than to confront. Sadly, in this case, ignorance is not bliss, and it can be detrimental to the recovery of those suffering from eating disorders and other mental illnesses. NEDA works to expand our awareness of the propensity of eating disorders affecting people of all ages and backgrounds in our society and throughout the world.
When people think of eating disorders, they often think solely of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which seem to be the most publicized eating disorders. It is hard to avoid hearing these terms on a regular basis; the media seems to issue commentary on the weights of different actresses on a weekly basis in magazine articles and entertainment programs on television. Although anorexia and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders, this does not mean that they are the only ones. Another prevalent set of eating disorders that have recently started to receive attention are eating disorders not otherwise specified, of which there are six types, including binge eating disorder.
The definitions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are rather rigid and, because of this, a number of people suffering from eating disorders go unnoticed and untreated. Recent research suggests that eating disorders actually fall on a continuum, with asymptomatic (normal) eating on one end and full-blown disorders on the other. In between those ends lie a range of disordered behaviors, from dieting to bingeing to various forms of purging (e.g., vomiting, laxative use, excessive exercise). It is said that eating disorders exist on a continuum because certain eating behaviors often lead to other disordered eating behaviors. For example, dieting might cause binge eating when a person violates his or her self-imposed eating rules and, due to all-or-nothing thinking, continues to break the diet rules to an extreme. Some people might follow this binge eating with purging practices in order to compensate for this rule violation, thereby generating a cycle of unhealthy eating behaviors that may stay in a subclinical range or that may escalate into a full-blown clinical eating disorder.
Given the propensity of diet books and programs in our culture, one might assume that almost everyone, regardless of sex or age, decides to tweak his or her eating behaviors at some point in time. How many of these people actually suffer from eating disturbances? Studies have found that eating disorders not otherwise specified occur in four to six percent of the general population (Herzog & Delinsky, 2001), which is approximately twice the amount of people who are suffering from full-blown anorexia and bulimia. If the diagnostic criteria of anorexia and bulimia are relaxed even slightly, which is the direction in which researchers of eating disorders are headed, 75 percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders not otherwise specified could be reassigned to anorexia nervosa alone (Anderson, Bowers, & Watson, 2001).
Eating is an everyday activity. Some might assume that something as ordinary as eating, which people must do for survival, is relatively simple, but it is clearly more complex than that for some people. It is important to be conscious of the behaviors surrounding one’s eating habits to the best of one’s abilities so to prevent these habits from escalating into full-blown eating disorders. If you or someone you know is suffering from disordered eating habits, please contact a mental health professional for help. All too often people fear that they are the only ones suffering from these issues, but the more that people bring them to light, the more we will begin to understand these issues and hopefully expand the ways to treat and prevent them. Ashburn Psychological Services has a highly trained team of psychiatrists and psychologists who accurately diagnosis and treat eating disorders. You can reach us at: (703) 723-2999 or visit us at: www.ashburnpsych.com
Laura Cusumano, B.A.
Ashburn Psychological Services Office Manager
Columbia University MA Psychology Program (Starting Fall 2009)