By Carrie Jones, LCSW
With summer approaching, our thoughts often turn to travel, beaches, fun in the sun…and our appearance. How many of us have had the thought that we need to shed a few pounds before the season of shorts and swimsuits? Obviously, healthy eating and feeling confident about our bodies are positive things, but over-concern with appearance and unhealthy dieting can be dangerous things. While eating disorders (EDs) are not a choice, many are triggered by an attempt to lose weight.
What Is An Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors related to food and weight. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder are the most common EDs.
Anorexia Nervosa is generally characterized by
- Failure to maintain a healthy body weight
- Intense fear of gaining weight or being “fat”
- Distorted body image
- Loss of menstrual periods
Bulimia Nervosa is generally characterized by
- Periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full
- No purging, but there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets
- Feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge
Binge Eating Disorder is generally characterized by
- A secretive cycle of binge eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
- Behavior that compensates for the binge, such as vomiting, laxative use, fasting, or excessive exercise
- Feeling a lack of control over the eating
- Frequent dieting and extreme concern with body weight and shape
Other eating disorders may include a combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and/or binge eating disorder. It is important to note that behaviors may not be clinically considered a full syndrome eating disorder, but can still be dangerous and should be addressed.
Sometimes Eating Disorders are trivialized as just a silly phase generally experienced by privileged teen girls. However, this perception is untrue and dangerous for multiple reasons. EDs also affects males, children and adults, and people from diverse ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Scarily, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric issue. Up to 20% of people suffering from anorexia die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems. Sadly, only 1 in 10 individuals with eating disorders ever receive treatment. A survey of eating disordered behaviors at one international school in Shanghai showed rates of eating disordered behavior among all students grades 7-12 comparable to US rates – between 7% and 13%.
Early identification and timely intervention are key. The sooner an individual gets help, the greater the likelihood he/she will recover. For full recovery, eating disorders must be addressed from both a medical and a mental health perspective. In addition to a multidisciplinary team consisting of medical, psychological, and nutritional professionals, the family should also be involved in the treatment plan. For adolescents, it can also be very helpful to have school staff aware of and involved in the treatment plan.
Tips for Preventing Eating Disorders
- Both home and school should provide an environment that promotes and models healthy behaviors and healthy body image
- Discourage dieting or counting of calories
- Children should never be weighed in public or told to lose weight
It can be all too easy to compare ourselves to each other, especially living in China where many expats feel like giants compared to the locals. Perhaps though, part of the gift of living abroad can be learning to appreciate international diversity of all sorts and learning to recognize and accept the beauty of bodies of all shapes and sizes.
The Cycle of Eating Disorders