Friday, 28 February 2014

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Hello all you lovely blog readers. You're looking extra lovely today, if I do say so myself. Seriously, go look at yourself in the mirror and see if I'm not right. 
I'm right, aren't I? Of course I am! 

So this week's post isn't really about food, but it's an issue that's both highly important and very close to my heart. February 23 - March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (it's technically an American thing, but that hardly matters).

So this post will be about various eating disorders, common myths, and information on how you can either help a loved one or get help yourself.

Before I begin here, I feel it is necessary to divulge a bit of personal information, which is kinda uncomfortable since I have no idea who will be reading this! Years ago, I struggled with an eating disorder and managed to beat it. The whole long, terrible, painful experience of illness, recovery, and rebuilding my life put me on the path I'm on nowstudying nutrition with the hopes that someday I can help others in the way that I was helped.

Personally, if there was just one thing I wished people would understand about eating disorders, it would be this:

It's not about food. 

Truly. Not about food.
It's not even all about body image. It's also about coping, insecurity, control, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, perfectionism, identity, depression, past wounds and future fears. The idea that a mental disorder as complex as an eating disorder can be fixed simply by "eating properly" is as ridiculous as saying that depression can be fixed by "thinking positive".

There can be a lot of confusion surrounding the definition of eating disorders, but it's important to remember that symptoms manifest differently in unique individualsthere is no cookie cutter definition of an eating disorder. The American Psychological Association recognizes three main eating disorders, as well as a fourth "undefined" disorder:

1. Anorexia Nervosa

  •  self-starvation induced by intense fear of weight gain and obsession with weight
  •  individual engages in continual, compulsive behaviours to prevent weight gain, such as routinely exercising to the point of exhaustion or creating rituals around food and eating

2. Bulimia Nervosa

  • eating a large amounts of food very quickly at one time, followed by compensatory behaviours such as vomiting, laxative abuse, and excessive exercise

3. Binge Eating Disorder

  • frequent consumption of very large amounts of food, but without compensatory behaviours seen in Bulimia Nervosa

4. Eating Disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS)

  • often show a mix of symptoms of anorexia and bulimia, but don't necessarily fit into either category

That's a highly generalized summary, but it would take forever to go overly in depth. For more information, visit

There are many misconceptions and confusions surrounding eating disorders. They've been glamorized, trivialized, ridiculed, and brushed off. What's more, having poor body image is considered "normal", as are dieting and negative body talk.

(On a sidenote, it is always an appropriate time to quote Mean Girls. The limit does not exist.)

So let's dive into what this "normal" looks like. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the Canadian National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) have compiled highly comprehensive statistics. Here are a few:

"81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat"
(Mellin et al., 1991)

"Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviours such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives" (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005)

"4% of boys in grades nine and ten reported anabolic steroid use in a 2002 study, showing that body preoccupation and attempts to alter one's body are issues affecting both men and women."
(Boyce, 2004)

"Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness - it is estimated that 10% of individuals with Anorexia Nervosa will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder."
(Sullivan, 2002)

As I talked about a few weeks ago, food and eating has somehow become extremely complicated. It can be hard to discern what is normal, and what isn't. Below is a definition for healthy eating used by an RD who works with eating disordered patients. As you read this, bear in mind that there is a different between disordered eating and having an eating disorder. Most people will likely exhibit some of these behaviours every now and againthis does not mean you have an eating disorder!  

With so many children, adolescents, and adults obsessing over weight, food, and body image to the point of debilitation and even death, we cannot afford to be silent about eating disorders anymore. So I'm going to take this opportunity to bust a couple ED myths.

Myth #1: You can tell just by looking at someone whether or not they have an eating disorder. 

Eating disorders are mental diseases. The toll they take on the physical body is devastating, but their effects on the brain can be unbearable. Someone may appear normal weight, overweight, obese, or even athletic but be silently facing thoughts of depression, inadequacy, hopelessness, fear, and anxiety.  

The media may cause us to think that in order to have an eating disorder, you have to be severely emaciated. Drastic starvation, even to the point of heart failure and death, does occur. But it's dangerous to brush off those who do not meet our expectations of what an eating disorder "should like look". This myth can discourage individuals from seeking help, for fear that they will not be taken seriously if they don't look like Jack Skellington. 

Myth #2: Eating disorders only affect teenage girls. 

Eating disorders primarily manifest in females aged 15-24, but it is estimated that 10% of individuals seeking professional help for eating disorders are male. It has also been noted in scientific literature that males are less likely to seek help for an eating disorder than women. So the actual percentage could be higher.

There are also studies emerging concerning the prevalence of eating disorders in older women. In one study of women aged 60-70, 4% of the study participants exhibited eating disordered symptoms (e.g. laxative abuse, bingeing). This is comparable to rates in women aged 15-24. 

Myth #3: Eating disorders only affect white, middle and upper class individuals. 

Eating disorders don't discriminatethey are prevalent amongst lower, middle, and upper socioeconomic classes. Additionally, rates of eating disorders are similar among African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics. 

Myth #4: Eating disorders are caused by the portrayal of unrealistic bodies in media.

Research does show that increased exposure to fashion magazines, TV, and ads is directly related to increased levels of body preoccupation and dissatisfaction in young girls; however, if these images were the cause of eating disorders, everyone would have an eating disorder. 

While the media certainly perpetuates body dissatisfaction, most people do not develop full-blown eating disorders. Eating disorders are the result of a myriad of factorspersonality, support system, coping mechanisms, genetic predisposition, and past experiences are only a few. 

Myth #5: Eating disorders are a choice. 

No one wakes up and thinks, "I'd really like to develop an eating disorder today". As mentioned before, eating disorders are often about control and perfectionism. What can begin as well-intentioned determination to get healthy and eat right can escalate into compulsive deprivation. Eating disorders can also be an outlet for gaining control over one's own life. 

Eating disorders are self-perpetuating cyclesthey take hold and rip away one's control over their thoughts. It's a difficult thing to understand, which is partly why so many misconceptions exist. If you want to understand more, I suggest you read the stories of people who have experienced ED firsthand. 

For stories from eating disorder survivors:

Now it's time for Emma's book recommendation! This is a thing I have just created, and I can tell you are very excited. 

The best book I have read on the topic of eating disorders is definitely "Unbearable Lightness" by Portia de Rossi. She describes so succinctly the silent pain of living with an eating disorder and the incredible struggle of recovery. Also, Portia is delightfully witty and a wonderful writer. 

For anyone wanting to better understand what goes on in the mind of someone suffering from an eating disorder, read this book! 

If you have any book recommendations for me, please leave me a comment! They don't necessarily need to be eating disorder relatedI love books and am always looking for a reason to delay my chemistry homework. 

In conclusion, I would like to say (a) one BIG thank you for reading this very long post, and (b) if you are currently battling an eating disorder, or suspect you are at risk/have an eating disorder, PLEASE do not be afraid to seek help. There are so many resources to help you and people to love you. No one should have to deal with an eating disorder, especially on their own. 

For Information on Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada)

National Eating Disorders Association (USA)

Medical Help in BC

Vancouver Coastal Health

St. Paul's Hospital Eating Disorders Program

Looking Glass Foundation for Eating Disorders

Woodstone Residence Treatment Facility

UBC AMS Counselling

Medical Help in London, ON and surrounding area

Student Health Services (Western University)

Hope's Garden (London)

New Realities Eating Disorders Centre (Toronto & Thornhill)

Sheena's Place (Toronto)


American Psychological Association (2014). Eating Disorders.

NEDA (2014). Get the Facts.

NEDIC (2014). Statistics.

NEDIC (2014). Research on Males and Eating Disorders

Peat, C.M., Peryl, N.L., Muehlenkamp, J.J. (2008). Body Image and Eating Disorders in Older Adults: A Review. The Journal of General Psychology 135.4 (Oct 2008): 343-58. Accessed at:

Sands, E. R., & Wardle, J. (2003). Internalization of ideal body shapes in 9-12-year-old girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33(2), 193-204

Shepperd Pratt Health System (2014). Facts & Myths. 

University of Rochester Medical Center (2014). Myths about Eating Disorders.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alisha, I love your blog post about eating disorders. My beautiful daughter is battling an eating disorder which Is heartbreaking for any parent, friends and family. Your blog post is one of the best I've read. I will also check into getting the book you mention. I ask that you please take a look at this link about my daughter and please keep her in your prayers. Its so sad to know there are thousands of people who are fighting this awful disorder as I type this.
    Thank you Alisha!

    Diane Clarke
    Missouri, USA