The term “Eating Disorder” can conjure up several stereotypical thoughts: a waif-like model who never eats, a high school cheerleader vomiting up her lunch on a regular basis, an obese woman eating multiple burgers in a drive-thru parking lot. The media does not help. We know these images because we have seen them many times, often portrayed as either something to strive for or something to make fun of (and always female).
The truth of the matter is that these images show one small part of common eating disorders. Eating disorders are illnesses that are quite serious and many times fatal (NIMH, 2016). They often involve a mix of biological, sociocultural and psychological issues for those who suffer from them (NEDA, 2018).
Going back to those “stereotypical images” above…they represent the three most common, or most commonly known, eating disorders: anorexia nervosa (starving oneself), bulimia nervosa (binging and purging) and binge-eating disorder (binging but not purging). There are several other types of eating disorders.
In fact, there are two in particular that I have seen much more often than those listed already. Perhaps that is due to the nature of the work I have done in the past. As a nurse leader, I was available to my staff at all times. We would often celebrate jobs well done, personal milestones and random Tuesdays. With one group of nurses, they were excited when I would order pizza or bring cupcakes from home. However, there was one who always brought her own carefully measured food with her. The more I watched and talked to her, the more I realized this was beyond wanting to eat healthy or a fad diet. Orthorexia is another eating disorder. It occurs when someone has an obsession with proper or healthy eating to the point that they cannot fathom eating something they did not prepare themselves. It can lead to cutting out entire food groups, ultimately leading to malnourishment.
Another somewhat common eating disorder is compulsive exercise. Sometimes the exercise is used to burn off excess calories. Other times, the individual does not take in any calories prior to the excessive exercise. More years ago than I will admit, I wrote a paper on this topic for one of my undergraduate courses. The disorder was relatively new to being studied. As I had very little interest in any kind of exercise, it fascinated me that anyone would willingly workout for long periods of time! Ten years later, I was coaching a marathon team. I became acutely aware of the effects compulsive exercise on three separate occasions. Each time, I was so glad that I was a nurse and my co-coach was a former medic. Luckily, all three runners were okay. As far as I know, one sought out treatment.
There is a misconception by many that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. I do not know anyone who would choose a disorder that could affect their health, relationships and potentially their life.
This year, from February 24 to March 1, is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is working to raise awareness and support those affected by eating disorders. This year’s theme is Come as You Are: Hindsight is 20/20. They hope this theme will encourage all people with eating disorders to reflect on positive actions they have taken, even if they are facing setbacks or challenges (NEDA, 2020)
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- The National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH]. (2016). Eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml.
- National Eating Disorders Association [NEDA]. (2020). Get involved. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-involved/nedawareness