The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is the “largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders.” NEDA envisions a world without eating disorders. In 2001, NEDA created an outreach effort known as National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDAwareness) Week. It is recognized from February 24 to March 1, and the theme for 2020 is Come As You Are: Hindsight is 20/20. It’s a time for people to accept themselves and others as they break free from eating disorders and a time to reflect upon successes and challenges along the way.

Throughout the week, NEDA will host events in communities across the United States and throughout the world to raise awareness and money for the research and treatment of eating disorders. NEDA states that during NEDAwareness Week, they also aim to “improve public understanding of eating disorders and their causes, dangers, and treatments and to empower everyone to reduce risk factors and join prevention efforts.”

Understanding Eating Disorders

Can you imagine hearing the following statements about a cancer diagnosis?

“She just wants attention.”

“It’s a rich person’s issue.”

“Just have more willpower.”

These are stigmatizing and inaccurate statements that are commonly expressed about eating disorders, and they greatly contribute to the pain of people grappling with them. The reality is that eating disorders are none of these statements; they are intricate illnesses that profoundly impact people physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.

Eating disorders are frequently misunderstood illnesses that affect 30 million people in the United States at some point in their lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), although they are serious, they’re treatable illnesses characterized by obsessions with food, body weight, and shape. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

It’s important to understand that people don’t choose eating disorders – they are medical ailments that can affect people of any age, gender, economic background, ethnicity, body weight, or age. Stigma causes shame and prevents people from seeking out help for eating disorders. One of the goals of NEDAwarness Week is to help remove the stigma surrounding eating disorders by helping people understand them.

Understanding the Causes of Eating Disorders

Researchers don’t yet understand the specific cause of eating disorders, but it appears a combination of biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors can raise a person’s risk.

      Examples of Biological Causes

  • A close family member has an eating disorder or mental health illness
  • Genetics
  • Hormone disorder
  • Dieting history

      Examples of Behavioral/Psychological Causes

  • Negative body image
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Self-oriented perfectionism
  • Inflexibility

      Examples of Social Causes

  • History of being bullied
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Childhood trauma
  • Internalizing society’s idea of the ideal appearance

Understanding the Dangers of Eating Disorders

NEDAwareness Week is also increasing understanding about the dangers of eating disorders; they are much more serious than the name implies. Compared to the general population, people with anorexia nervosa are six times more likely to die. Starvation, substance abuse, and suicide are frequent reasons for their deaths. Eating disorders can also cause complications in every system throughout a person’s body, including:

      Cardiovascular System

  • Pulse and blood pressure drop as the heart has less energy to pump blood and fewer cells to use to pump.
  • The heart needs the electrolyte potassium to beat properly. When a person purges, potassium, and other electrolytes are depleted, and it can cause heart arrhythmias and death.

      Gastrointestinal System

  • Eating disorders can lead to gastroparesis, which is slowed digestion. Gastroparesis can lead to erratic blood sugar, intestinal blockages, stomach bloating, infections, and more.
  • Constipation
  • Life-threatening stomach or esophagus rupture
  • Pancreatitis from malnutrition

      Neurological System

  • Shrinkage of brain gray matter
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Difficulty concentrating

      Endocrine System

  • Thyroid and sex hormones decrease
  • Menstrual cycles can cease
  • Binge eating can lead to insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes
  • High cholesterol levels from starvation

Other Health Effects

  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Kidney failure from dehydration
  • Anemia from lack of iron in the diet
  • Fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Approximately 1 in 10 people get treatment for eating disorders, partly due to the stigma attached to them. Recovering from an eating disorder is a difficult journey, but it’s possible. It requires a strong support system, including a team of supportive, skilled treatment professionals, family, and friends. Recovery isn’t a straight step by step process; rather, it’s described as a cycle called the Stages of Change Model.

The Stages of Change include:

  1. Precontemplation Stage
  2. Contemplation Stage
  3. Preparation Stage
  4. Action Stage
  5. Maintenance/Relapse
  6. Termination Stage & Relapse Prevention

According to the NIH, treatment plans for eating disorders include a combination of psychotherapy, medical care, and monitoring, nutritional counseling, medications. Treatment goals typically include restoring sufficient nutrition, achieving a healthy weight, reducing excessive exercise, and eliminating unhealthy behaviors.

The likelihood of recovery increases through relationships with self, others, and a greater purpose. Shame is an integral factor impacting people with eating disorders. Dr. Brene Brown states the antidote to shame well, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

NEDAwareness Week hopes to douse the secrecy, silence, and judgment surrounding eating disorders with the understanding that leads to empathy. You can get involved in their efforts too.

How You Can Get Involved and Join Prevention Efforts

There are ways you can join in on NEDAwareness Week to help increase understanding and break stigmas about eating disorders.

  • Attend a NEDAwarenesss Week event
  • Share your story
  • Share support and resources on social media
  • Use campaign hashtags on social media #NEDAwarness & #ComeAsYouAre
  • Get involved with NEDA advocacy

Reach Out to LifeStance Health for Support

If you or someone you love needs help with an eating disorder, reach out for an appointment today. At LifeStance Health, our skilled counselors can assess your situation and work with you to formulate a plan to achieve your best possible health.