February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Month, and we can think of few health phrases that could be more misunderstood than the term ‘eating disorder.’ It’s one of those things were the assumptions made in the popular consciousness can be incredibly damaging to those living with a disorder every day, so we wanted to start things off with a quick overview that might dispel some damaging misconceptions:
Eating disorders are deadly
Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are lethal. On its own, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder—meaning more Americans will die as a result of suffering from anorexia than depression or bipolar disorder. One in five of those deaths will be a suicide.
Few people seek help
Why are these disorder so deadly? Part of the reason is that they are so common. An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and despite the stigma attached to the disorder, anorexia is not the most common of those. In fact, it is believed that binge eating disorder is the most common (2.8% of American adults in their lifetime), followed by bulimia (1.5% of American women in their lifetime), and followed last by anorexia (.9% of American women in their lifetime).
Despite those high numbers of sufferers, only about a third of those men and women will ever seek treatment. This can be because they may not see their problem as a medical condition, or because they are ashamed to discuss the problem with others.
Eating disorders can affect everybody
A common assumption is that eating disorders are a mental condition of middle class white women, but the data suggests that is not the case. One study found that the prevalence of both binge eating disorder and anorexia was consistent among all ethnic groups, and that bulimia was actually more prevalent in African American and Latino populations than in non-Latino white populations. Despite this prevalence, that some study found that those groups would seek assistance in addressing the disorder at a rate below that of non-Latino whites.
You may not be helping
As with many mental conditions, eating disorders are misunderstood and frequently oversimplified. In doing so, people assume they can help those suffering from a condition with a bit of tough love and phrases like “You just need to stop cold turkey” or “Why don’t you just eat more?”
The truth is that treating an eating disorder is much more complicated than that, requiring professional assistance that may include medical care, mental health care, and dietary counseling and planning. If an individual is driven to an eating disorder, for example, in an effort to exert control over their life, then simply telling them to “Eat more” can sometimes be contrary to a carefully planned nutrition plan put into place by a doctor.
If you are looking for ways that you can assist someone with an eating disorder, we encourage you to check the National Eating Disorder Association.