Almost 1 in 10 Americans struggle with eating disorders–that doesn’t even begin to account for those who are undiagnosed or who struggle with food in other ways. That means you definitely know someone in eating disorder recovery, and you might even have something to learn about your own disordered eating habits.
If you’re looking for answers to any of the following concerns about eating disorders, read on.
It’s time to face the facts about eating disorders, disordered eating, and other serious concerns, like exercise addiction and the cultural obsession with wellness. Equipped with the facts and best practices, each of us can become an advocate to help ourselves and others heal.
If one were to rely on media coverage, they might assume that eating disorders are rare or that they only affect a select group of people: young, white, female, and from a background of financial stability. In reality, we know that at least 9% of people in the United States live with an eating disorder–and that number doesn’t account for those who go undetected.
It’s most common that we hear about anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In reality, other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), binge eating disorder (BED), and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are all prevalent as well.
Highlighting the diverse presentation of eating disorders, only 6% of people who live with eating disorders are in the “underweight” category of the BMI. Eating disorders aren’t really identified by a “look” so much as by patterns and beliefs about food.
Exercise addiction and orthorexia (an obsession with health so strong that it displaces other priorities) are two other prominent problems. Unfortunately, these unhelpful relationships with weight and health are taken for granted in our culture, and sometimes even encouraged. The dangers of diet culture are sneaky, but they are so very real. Sometimes, an individual does not even realize that they have a problem.
In a similar vein, there’s disordered eating. While bona fide eating disorders are very common, disordered eating is even more common–and addressing it also matters. It can severely negatively affect a person’s health (mental and physical) and interpersonal relationships.
For some populations, like the LGBTQIA+ population, the rate of eating disorders increases dramatically. Here’s what the research says: “It has been reported that both clinical eating disorders and eating disorder behaviors occur more frequently in LGBT individuals compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.” Indeed, 54% of LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals are diagnosed with a bona fide eating disorder during their lifetime.
It goes without saying that this number is too high. Given that eating disorders are among the most deadly mental illnesses, 54% means that we have a major problem that needs fixing.
As for wealth, food insecurity is actually a possible risk factor for eating disorders, and research indicates that disorder behaviors may actually be more prevalent in those of low socioeconomic status. And, for people of color, the likelihood of having your symptoms detected is lower.
A lot of the time, people in eating disorder recovery are learning to self-advocate, sometimes for the first time. If someone you know is in eating disorder recovery, you may learn a lot about boundary setting and respecting boundaries.
When in doubt about the other person’s limits or triggers, ask them upfront. Are any topics they want you to avoid or talk about in a different way?
Some of us have more difficulty with boundaries than others. If you’re not used to having your own boundaries or needs respected, you might be more apt to take other people’s boundaries personally or even see them as an attack on you and your beliefs or actions. Consider whether your response to others’ boundaries might relate to your own un-set boundaries or unmet needs.
The flip-side of respecting others’ self-advocacy is advocating for yourself. When you see a friend implement boundaries and honor their needs, you may find that you can do it, too. Not just with food and bodies, but in other areas of life.
Since we never know who else might be facing something like an eating disorder, it’s important to stay conscious of unnecessary eating disorder triggers. Let’s go through some examples…
Maybe you are used to bonding with other people through dieting or talking about the cleanest, most “healing” foods.
You don’t have to stop talking about food to be conscious of eating disorders. Instead, focus on food aside from health and wellness. Talk about food in the contexts of joy, tradition, or culture – rather than restriction, weight gain, or shame.
Even if it’s totally okay for you to use certain aspects of things like gentle nutrition, or, if you are able to see the miles that you ran on the treadmill, it might not be something that needs to be said to the other person in your life.
For example, perhaps a loved one in recovery explained that they were triggered when you told them about tracking your step and fitness goals.
You might reflexively get defensive or feel flooded by guilt. Extend compassion to yourself, and remember that reflecting on the ways you impact other people in the world is a respectable, brave, and loving act of growth.
Even if you’ve had a foot-in-mouth moment, you are not “bad.” You are learning something new. Thank the other person for their courage and grace in “calling you in.” If you feel inclined, share that you will examine your attitudes for both of your sakes.
Knowing someone with an eating disorder can be a great blessing – it can be a surprising opportunity to reflect on your own relationship with food and body image.
One of the most important things in writing a piece on eating disorders, or how to support someone with an eating disorder, is that we can’t assume that the reader doesn’t have an eating disorder themselves.
Do you talk (and think) about your own body kindly? What about others’ bodies? Take a minute to really reflect on these questions. Attitudes about ourselves can reflect on how we see others, and vice versa.
Many of us face challenges related to food, body image, exercise, or maintaining a sense of perceived control and security through fixation on the “best” health possible- which, in the case of orthorexia, may not actually be the best and could actually be of severe detriment.
So since you definitely know someone in eating disorder recovery, you can be a much better ally by examining your own relationship to body image and diet.
Aside from actual eating habits, self-talk has a subtle but significant impact on how we talk to others.
A tip to determine if your self-talk is healthy or not: Would you say the things you say about your body to a child or someone else you care about? Would you want the inner voice of someone you love to reflect your current inner voice? Or, is that voice potentially unkind?
“You can’t hate yourself into loving yourself,” as the saying goes. This doesn’t mean that you can’t feel down about yourself or your body: we all have those days. But, a little bit of loving-kindness and a shift in thinking could do your mental and physical health some good!
When you reflect on the way you talk about food, bodies, and so on, ask yourself a couple of tough questions:
For example, if you put down your own body, how might that make someone else with a similar body feel?
It’s not always easy to change the way we think or feel, and if nothing else, it’s a process that can take a very long time.
One other part of challenging what we know is to challenge the idea that weight reflects on health. We must also challenge the related idea that weight is a personal choice. In reality, factors like genetics, exercise, income, and the environment we live in play a major role in health status and weight.
When we confuse weight with health, we ignore the reality of body diversity. And when we attach weight to morality and personal choice, we ignore chronic illness, marginalization, and other factors. And, we ignore humanity.
There are ways to care for yourself that have nothing to do with weight, and what that looks like will be unique for us all.
To sum it up? The reality is that bodies are diverse. Dieting, bullying, and general weight stigma are serious risk factors for eating disorders, and eating disorders open the door to even more serious emotional and physical struggles.
Disordered eating is serious, and it is vital to get help if it’s something that you or a loved one experiences.
You don’t have to commit to treatment immediately or shame yourself for your struggles; just do some preliminary research and consider meeting even just once with a health of every size dietitian, therapist, counselor, or other healthcare provider. That suggestion applies whether you’re supporting someone in eating disorder recovery, or examining your own relationship with food and body image. Peer support avenues may also be beneficial.
Please reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association to get more information about eating disorders, access a free screening tool, and more.
Eating disorder recovery is possible, and when we work together, we can create a better world for all people.
The words we say make a difference. Even if it seems small, it’s worth challenging ideas about eating disorders and overall health for ourselves and others.