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Eating Disorders: When to Seek Help

I remember at the age of 10, a gymnast with a strong body and not much fat, telling my mom that I wanted my body to be “perfect.” “You are perfect just as you are, Andrea,” said my mother.

Now, I know that eating disorders are a mental illness and fall right in line with my bipolar disorder, anxiety and underlying depression. And, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as my daughter, Chloe, is unhappy with her weight and doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror either.

35 years later, I still struggle with body image issues and fixate at nearly every calorie I put in my mouth. Now, I know that eating disorders are a mental illness and fall right in line with my bipolar disorder, anxiety and underlying depression. And, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as my daughter, Chloe, is unhappy with her weight and doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror either.

Eating disorders are a serious mental illness and disease that can be easily overlooked, denied and, if left untreated, cause death. Below are some startling statistics that shine light on this often unspoken illness.

  • 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
  • Up to 8% of the U.S. population suffers from an eating disorder (that is nearly 24 million people)
  • 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25
  • An estimated 10-15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male
  • Only 1 in 10 with eating disorders receive treatment
  • Eating disorder research is extremely underfunded

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There are a variety of reasons someone develops an eating disorder. And, usually, it’s a combination of factors. In my case, it helped distract me from the anxiety that was constantly gnawing at me. To this day, the more stress I’m under, the more fixated I am on what I eat. The medications I take to control my anxiety and depression have helped immensely with my eating disorder.

Below are some other pieces that make up eating disorders:

Psychological Factors

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of control in life or feeling inadequate
  • Depression, anxiety or stress

Dieting & Social Pressure

  • Being teased or ridiculed based on size, weight or body image
  • Cultural factors that praise thinness or being muscular and obtaining the perfect body
  • Social pressures that value people on their physical appearance and not inner-qualities

Environmental Factors

  • Professions and careers that promote thinness and weight loss (i.e. ballet and modeling)
  • Aesthetic and weight-oriented sports such as diving, gymnastics and wrestling

Genetics

  • The risk of developing an eating disorder, according to the Eating Disorder Coalition, is 50-80% genetics.
  • Researchers from the University of Iowa and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have identified two gene mutations, ESSRA and HDAS4, that increase the risk of eating disorders.

When Is It Time to Seek Help?

Like any other mental illness, early intervention is critical to treatment and a successful recovery. Below are some signs that someone may be struggling with an eating disorder:

  • They have guilt & shame about eating
  • They have low self-esteem
  • They have a compulsive need for body perfection
  • They are extremely concerned about appearance
  • They are constantly occupied with food and/or weight
  • They significantly reduce eating and/or have a significant weight loss
  • There is evidence of purging (vomiting, diuretic abuse, excessive exercise)

How Do I Approach Someone I Think Has An Eating Disorder?

I believe the best approach is to focus the conversation on how the person is doing emotionally rather than their eating. Because, again, the eating disorder is a coping mechanism for other issues in their life they don’t know how to healthily confront.

This is tricky since there is so much shame associated with having an eating disorder, and it’s often a coping mechanism to “control” part of their life. I believe the best approach is to focus the conversation on how the person is doing emotionally rather than their eating. Because, again, the eating disorder is a coping mechanism for other issues in their life they don’t know how to healthily confront. Here are some tips to try:

  • Acknowledge that the person doesn’t seem themselves, maybe something like, “You seem really stressed and upset lately. I’m worried about you, what’s going on?”
  • Use empathy to open the conversation; “I know you have a stressful schedule and a lot of after school activities…I would really struggle with what you’ve got going on, how is it affecting you?”
  • Be compassionate and encourage them to seek professional help. Also, don’t be surprised if they refuse to talk on your first attempt to talk with them; this is a frightening and shameful situation to be in.
  • Listen without judging. Validate the feelings they have rather than telling them how they should feel in this situation.

Learn more about eating disorders at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, or call the confidential, toll free Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Andrea with Bipolar Lemonade also offers one-on-one support for families with a mentally ill youth. Click here to Schedule An Appointment.

Sources: http://avalonhillsfoundation.org

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