Let’s Talk About Eating Disorders

Hi everyone! Hope you all have been doing well, taking care of your health, both mental and physical, and looking out for the people around you. On a side note, Happy International Women’s day. Just wanted to take a moment to tell you, you are beautiful, unique and strong and I hope you all celebrated yourself and the great women in your life. Earlier, we talked about depression and how you can help the people around you. We also talked about how an anxiety attack is different from a panic attack in terms of some observable physical and emotional symptoms, and some easy home remedies as well as lifestyle changes you can implement in your daily lives to help cope with them better. For this week’s issue, I decided to talk about eating disorders, which is as serious a mental illness as any other but is very easily neglected and dismissed. It comes up very loosely in conversations and people can be dismissive of it. “That girl can’t even finish a waffle and she is so thin, she is anorexic.” To give you an overview, I will talk about some common eating disorders, the processes involved in diagnosing an eating disorder, symptoms characteristic to each type of eating disorder and lastly, I will share with you some stories of popular celebrities and public figures who have struggled with this mental illness. So, sit back and grab a nice warm cup of coffee because this is going to be a long article, and hopefully one you will enjoy reading and gain something from.

Generally speaking, eating disorders are a legit and serious mental health issue. They can lead to complicated and life-threatening scenarios ranging from malnutrition, anemia, and in extreme cases to multiple organ failure if left unchecked. Some common myths I have come across surrounding eating disorders include: it is a “choice” or a “phase”, or it is a “girl thing”. These are completely untrue, and it upsets me that people fail to recognize this as a real problem or stereotype the hell out of it. It is definitely not a choice and it is most certainly not a “girl thing”. To all of you, who are of the opinion that this is a girl thing, I hate to burst your bubble, but it really is not. According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are more prevalent in females as compared to males, but another very important factor to consider is because of such stigmas surrounding this mental illness, people go years without a proper diagnosis because they are either in denial or simply because of the myth that this is a “girl thing”. People don’t acknowledge it to be a real mental illness because they are of the opinion that the people suffering are doing this for attention or as a phase they need to snap out of and “just eat”. In fact, people suffering from depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders are more likely to develop eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) is a Canada-based non-profit that focus on spreading awareness about this particular mental illness through awareness campaigns, offering direct client support through their national helpline (1-866-633-4220) and providing local resources and referrals for people who are struggling with eating disorders. For more information, I would highly recommend you visit their website and if you are interested, check out the additional programs they have to offer. So, with the hopes that you will keep an open mind about this, I will proceed to talk about some common eating disorders and symptoms that characterize each.

Anorexia Nervosa (AN), simply put, is a disorder that is caused by a desire to lose weight, and this is generally characterized by thin appearances. Anorexic people tend to maintain a weight lower than the ideal weight because they have an extreme fear of weight gain. The two ways an anorexic person maintain a low weight are: restricting their diet or “binge and purge”. These terms are pretty self-explanatory i.e. restrict their diet by not eating for hours or days; and “binge and purge” is when they eat large amounts of food within a short time-period and purge it out by abusing laxatives, enemas, diuretics etc. They have a distorted perception about themselves and no one can convince them otherwise. Don’t confuse this with things like having a bad hair day or taking notice of the pimple on your cheek or forehead, that is normal self-consciousness. What I mean by distorted is that is an anorexic person would look into a mirror and see a morbidly obese person when in reality they could be severely underweight. Anorexia can cause serious and fatal health problems like organ failure, brain damage, cardiovascular problems and more, and needs proper medical attention.

Moving on, let’s talk about Bulimia Nervosa (BN), which is a disorder that causes the people suffering to binge eat food and then leads to behaviours to compensate for the overeating such as feeling disgusted, excessive exercising or self-induced vomiting etc. They also try to compensate for the binge by not eating for a certain amount of days. Bulimic people often describe the desire to binge eat as an out-of-control experience i.e. something they cannot control or realize it is happening until it finally does. They tend to not eat socially because they are embarrassed by the binge eating. Even though bulimia is not always as fatal a mental illness as anorexia, however, it can cause serious physical consequences such as gastric rupture, ulcers, bulimia teeth (deterioration of the tooth enamel), dehydration, heart problems and more.

Lastly, I want to discuss Binge Eating Disorder (BED). This is by far the most “normalized” and common eating disorder. Allow me to explain what I mean when I say this is a “normalized” eating disorder. Even though it is just as harmful as any other eating disorder, people commonly associate it with over eating, obesity, laziness etc. I came across an article on Medium, by Emily Kate, and she talks about how common BED actually is. Here are some facts about BED that Emily highlighted in her article titled “The World’s Deadliest Psychiatric Disorder”. BED is three times more common than AN and BN combined. It is also more common than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia and roughly half the risk of developing BED is genetic. BED is very similar to BN, however, there is one significant difference between the two. People with BED do not exhibit compensating behaviours like people with BN ex. purging, restricting their food etc. Instead, they are overwhelmed by disgust and guilt after over eating and have no way to cope. The physical symptoms can include constant weight fluctuations, stomach cramps, constipation to name a few.

So, now that I have discussed the common eating disorders and some symptoms that characterize them, I am going to move on and talk a little bit about how doctors use physical and psychological exams to evaluate the criteria for eating disorders and refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to give a diagnosis to the patient. The physical evaluation is comprising of two parts: physical exam and laboratory tests. During the physical exam, the doctor checks the height, weight etc. Since, eating disorders can result in low/high blood pressure, difficulty in breathing etc. doctors also check your heart and breathing rate. Doctors also examine the patient’s teeth for signs of deterioration; brittle nails etc. The laboratory tests include X-rays to check for broken bones or bone loss that can be a result of AN and BN. Other tests include urine analysis, blood tests, thyroid tests, ECG exam to check for heart irregularities. The other part of giving a diagnosis is having a psychological exam done by a mental health professional. This allows the doctor to get an idea of your eating habits and how you perceive yourself. Finally, the doctor gives you a diagnosis based on the criteria you meet for a specific type of eating disorder.

If you made it to the end, pat yourself on the shoulder because you did a great job. That was indeed a lot of information to process, but in my defense, I tried to make it as concise and as informative as possible. I’ll end my article by talking about a popular and young celebrity artist who recently opened up about her struggle with Bulimia throughout her high school and college life. Camila Mendes, who plays the part of Veronica Lodge on the TV series Riverdale, recently talked to SHAPE and said, “I was so scared of carbs that I wouldn’t let myself eat bread or rice ever. I’d go a week without eating them, then I would binge on them, and that would make me want to purge.” Camila worked with a therapist as well as nutritionist to address her eating disorder. She also discussed how opening up about her struggles with bulimia on social media made her feel very vulnerable but at the same time she realized that she had the platform and power to influence the younger generation and initiate a positive change by spreading awareness about eating disorders. Therefore, I hope you found this article informative and helpful. To those of you who are struggling with an eating disorder, I just want to say don’t diminish your feelings or yourself, realize that you might be struggling and remember you are not alone in this, so this is not something your brain might be concocting. People around you may not understand what you’re going through or know your circumstances. But if you realize that you may be struggling with an eating disorder, then you are already on the road to recovery. Seek help from a doctor because it is as serious a mental illness as depression or anxiety, but with the combination of correct form of help (from a doctor or mental health professional), support system and patience, you can recover and come back to a healthy lifestyle!

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