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The Truth About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be one of the most difficult mental health disorders to overcome. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANADA, up to 30 million people, both men and women, suffer from an eating disorder (either anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder) in the United States alone. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any illness, and almost 50% of people with an eating disorder also meet the criteria for depression.

Currently, it is estimated that 10-15% of men suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Unfortunately, men are less likely to seek out treatment for their eating disorders due to the misconception that eating disorders are strictly “women’s diseases,” which can make admitting to having one seem emasculating. This misconception probably stems from the fact that eating disorders are more common amongst women which is likely due to the more overt perpetuation of female beauty standards through the media. In an alarming find, ANADA states that “47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.” and “69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.” Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that children’s self esteem and self-image can be impacted by unrealistic beauty standards at an even earlier age. According to ANADA, “42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner,” and “81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.”

Concern with one’s weight does not necessarily correlate to a concern about health. Eating disorders are unhealthy and do not only threaten one’s mental and physical wellbeing but can also be fatal. Statistics regarding deaths related to eating disorders vary depending on source due to the fact that death can result from a number of issues related to the eating disorder (such as heart failure, organ failure, or suicide) but the ultimate cause of death reported will be one of those issues rather than the disorder that triggered them. That being said, presently, based on a variety of reports, it is believed that around 20% of individuals diagnosed with anorexia or a related disorder will die prematurely due to complications from their disorder.

It is Possible to Recover from an Eating Disorder

Despite the challenges along the way, however, it is entirely possible to recover from an eating disorder. There are a number of treatments available designed to help those who are struggling. As we embark on this New Year, we might find that we are suddenly surrounded by an abundance of New Year’s resolutions. The best resolution to make is a commitment to one’s own happiness and wellbeing, which means making a commitment to recover from unhealthy practices which may threaten that.

What exactly recovery means will differ from person to person, as every individual follows their own path. Dr. Judy Scheel, is the president of Cedar Associates Foundation, Inc. a non-profit organization which is dedicated to the prevention, research, and education of eating disorders.  Discussing the influence of culture on body image, Dr. Scheel states that “Growing up and living in a culture obsessed with body image makes it very difficult to challenge and change some of the beliefs inherited from our culture.” Because of the ways in which culture helps form our perception of ourselves, it can essentially provide the context for eating disorders. According to Dr. Scheel, this means that “Since culture provides the context for an eating disorder, recovery means facing the circumstances and issues in life (content) that contributed to the development of the eating disorder so that weathering the cultural ‘body image’ storm in the future is possible.”

That being said, we must remember first and foremost that recovery is not something that can be accomplished overnight: it is a process, regardless of what form it might take on an individual basis. Recovery is something that will unfold over time following a series of what Dr. Scheel calls “psychological awakenings”: these can include insights, revelations, and relational repairs which can ultimately lead to behavioral changes. This is also known as the “aha” moment, the point in time when ideas finally click in a manner that heightens our awareness of our own circumstances. These moments seldom occur in the same fashion for everyone.

The Problem with Perfection

In the case of eating disorders, full recovery is sometimes possible. Dr. Scheel defines a “complete” recovery as being when an individual resolves their eating behaviors and is no longer triggered by certain foods or scenarios to resume their disorder. However, these cases are not the most common outcome. But Dr. Scheel explains that “Other recovery scenarios are more likely, and these scenarios do not mean recovery is any less successful.  For example, some who recover may cease vomiting, but cannot keep any trigger foods in their house for the rest of their life. Others may cease vomiting but, under certain conditions or during emotionally charged situations, avoid foods that will likely trigger a binge-purge episode.”

While not the idealized outcome that we often see perpetuated through film and TV, these steps are no less significant or indicative of recovery. Too often we assume that recovery means simply “shutting down” an eating disorder or other problem. It’s not that simple. What recovery actually means is that we learn what we need in life to move forward and experience life to the fullest. Dr. Scheel lists a series of benchmarks for recovery including “having a healthy relationship with food, connecting with other people in healthy relationships, knowing your limitations, and honoring your feelings.” It is through demonstrating one, more, or eventually all of these benchmarks which means that one has recovered successfully. To expect perfection or set unrealistic expectations that one’s eating disorder will simply “disappear” does more harm than good.

Dr. Scheel explains that “Eating disorders represent, among many things, a belief that perfectionism is the only acceptable outcome in life. Recovery, then, represents the awareness that perfectionism is merely a protection against feelings of vulnerability.” In order to overcome, we must remember that just as it is important to integrate our positive and negative life experiences, so, too, we must learn to come to terms with the necessary compromises we need to make in order to make recovered life possible. To compromise is not to accept defeat. By realizing this we can begin to appreciate the steps we take and eventually realize the accomplishments we made. Through this, we can feel joy.

Asking For Help Can Be the First Step

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, seeking help can help save a life. Moreover, it can make that life one that is happy, fulfilled, and serve as a reminder that life is indeed worth living.

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