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“I had no idea”: Awareness week combats eating disorders

Photo by Christy Mckenna // Flickr

Eating disorders afflict 10 to 20 percent of women in college campuses, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 22-28) aims to confront these widespread, yet often downplayed conditions. This year’s theme is “I had no idea,” and seeks to spread awareness of the help available to the 24 million Americans who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

Currently, only 10 percent of those who suffer from eating disorders receive treatment, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

The prevalence of eating disorders is a concern not only because of their devastating effects on a person’s quality of life, but also because of their deadliness. Eating disorders have a mortality rate of at least 4 to 5 percent, according to ANAD. This is higher than any other mental disorder.

Yet, ironically, the condition develops from a benign function of the human brain.

“[Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating] are part of an adaptive process that serves a person in a certain way — a short-term relief from depression, stress or anxiety,” said Dr. Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, a clinical psychologist at Insight Behavioral Health Centers and lecturer at Northwestern University. “Once they’ve done it the first time, they will go to that behavior again more quickly.”

She said that those who suffer from eating disorders are often intelligent and driven people whose high motivations can lead them to put excessive pressure on themselves. Disorders function like addictions, where a focus on food comes to shut out other enjoyable parts of the afflicted person’s life.

“I once said to a patient, ‘Your perspective now is like being in a dark room, where all you can see is the light from a single flashlight.’ She said, ‘No Doctor Fletcher, it’s like a laser beam.’”

Males account for 10 to 15 percent of those with an eating disorder, according to ANAD. However, Astrachan-Fletcher says she thinks male body image issues are underreported and misunderstood. It’s possible those issues are disguised by an obsessive gym routine.

“Binge eating is just as prevalent, if not more, in men. Male disorders are hidden by an obsession with building muscle and losing fat. These are societally accepted behaviors, so it’s easier to happen unnoticed,” she said.

Research indicates there is a genetic component that makes some people more vulnerable to eating disorders — the same gene that makes one vulnerable to depression, alcoholism and anxiety. Hormonal shifts, stress, pressure and difficult relationships can trigger eating disorders, which helps to explain why eating disorders are so widespread amidst college students. Other popular American beliefs, such as the idea that fitness equals control and fat is horrible, also encourage a destructive relationship with one’s body.

The ways that eating disorders manifest themselves are evolving. Binge eating, which includes hyperconsumption  of food without purging, is the most prevalent and affects as many as 5 percent of Americans. Anorexia and bulimia are slightly less prevalent but more likely to result in death.

Tumblr is a popular forum for users to celebrate thinness and often express pride in their eating disorders. In a phenomenon some call “drunkorexia,” people skip meals in order to reach intoxication faster and replace dinner calories with drink calories.

The dangers of this are numerous, including the potential for alcohol poisoning and the fact that the simple sugars of alcohol are nutritionally incomparable with solid food.

Eating disorders are just some of the unhealthy ways in which Americans perceive their bodies.

It begins early: 42 percent of first through third grade girls want to be thinner, and 86 percent of those who develop a disorder will experience it before the age of 20, according to ANAD. It is also important to recognize that these disorders occur in conjunction with other mental health problems; for example, depression affects almost half of those with an eating disorder.

Reaching out for help can be tremendously difficult for those suffering because it conflicts with the goal of getting thinner. But Astrachan-Fletcher says getting better means finding healthier coping mechanisms for life’s anxieties, not just removing the unhealthy behaviors without providing another outlet.

For those who seek assistance, Loyola’s Wellness Center offers the services of a mental health provider, nurse practitioner and registered dietician. They aim to “assess, stabilize, and connect students to ongoing care to more intensive treatment services in the community,” according to an email to The Phoenix from nutritionist Lindsey Harrigan.

If you think a friend is suffering from a disorder, AstrachanFletcher says to talk to them about facts, not judgments.

“Focus on the facts of what you’re seeing in their behavior, the fact of your concern for them. Have short gentle conversations instead of being pushy, but make sure they know that help is out there. The first step is helping them see that they have a choice.”

If you want to seek help, the Wellness Center can be reached at 773-508-8883 or by scheduling an appointment at luc.edu/wellness. NEDA has a helpline at 800-931-2237. ANAD’s helpline number is  630-577-1330, and offers an email help service at anadhelp@anad.org.

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