National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) began on Monday, Feb. 26. The primary goal of NEDAW is to educate the public about eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and to encourage those suffering from eating disorders to seek treatment.
NEDAW also provides a platform for those suffering from eating disorders to fight the stigma surrounding their disorders and to address some of the common misconceptions in the public
Dr. Laura McLain, site director at The Renfrew Center of Atlanta, highlighted the importance of education in regards to talking about eating disorders, because symptoms can present themselves in a myriad of ways.
“What we oftentimes see is that people usually think of an individual with an eating disorder as somebody who is very, very thin — to the point where they look emaciated,” McLain said. “But really, somebody with an eating disorder can come in all shapes and sizes.”
She noted that body composition alone is not necessarily an indicator of health, and it is important to consider the behaviors of an individual rather than solely appearance — especially because eating disorders may often be combined with other mental health issues, and not exist solely on their own.
“Is there depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder?” McLain said. “What are their relationships like? What is their relationship with food like? The bigger picture is really what we’re looking for and trying to help educate people about.”
McLain also shared some common signs and symptoms of three predominant eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
“With anorexia, what you typically see are preoccupations with food or weight,” McLain said. “Oftentimes, there is significant weight loss because somebody is restricting calories; sometimes they will be on diets even though they don’t need to be on one. Another hallmark is distorted body image, in which individuals perceive themselves as heavier than they actually are.
“For somebody with bulimia, there are usually binge-eating episodes that feel very out-of-control or chaotic for the person, and then oftentimes that is coupled with some type of compensatory behavior — whether it be self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or over-exercise. You typically see frequent trips to the bathroom,” said McLain. People suffering from bulimia can also experience significant changes in weight.
“For somebody with binge eating disorder, oftentimes what you hear about is somebody eating very large quantities of food in a single sitting, or throughout the day,” she said. “Sometimes they’re just continuing with emotional eating — the inability to stop themselves.”
McLain noted that these descriptions are generalizations, and eating disorders manifest in different ways for different individuals; people who suffer from eating disorders do not necessarily fit neatly into one category. Other eating disorders increasingly seen on college campuses include “drunkorexia” which involves restricting food to compensate for binge drinking and “orthorexia” which is an obsession with healthy eating.
McLain continued: “There is a lot of shame and embarrassment about eating disorder behaviors; so, signs of depression and anxiety, and withdrawing from social situations, can very much be coupled with that.
“Just as eating disorder behaviors look different for each individual, so does eating disorder recovery,” McLain explained. “It can be a long process. It takes a while because you are learning how to be very different and live in the world very differently, and that takes time and practice.”
For many people affected by eating disorders, social media has become an important and powerful tool for recovery. Although social media can be a factor in the development of body image problems, many individuals in recovery have reclaimed platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to share their journeys with treatment and to motivate others going through similar experiences.
In keeping with this trend, The Renfrew Center launched a social media campaign called “This is ME!” in conjunction with NEDAW, encouraging individuals to share their stories using the hashtag #ThisIsMe2018. The Instagram page is full of empowered survivors breaking the stigma by sharing their stories.
“The campaign has been sparked by the talk that we’re hearing about social media,” McLain said. “Women in particular are posting really positive things: body acceptance, and being true to who we are as people. Renfrew’s philosophy is empowering women to be their truest selves, embrace their lives and move forward without their eating disorder in a healthy way.”
The campaign hopes to inspire individuals to showcase their confidence, unique backgrounds and journey.
McLain also addressed some of the misconceptions that tend to circulate in the public consciousness about eating disorders.
“A big misconception — I think it’s getting better — oftentimes people think eating disorders are something that predominantly either young women or adolescents deal with, as well as Caucasian people; but it really does span across all socioeconomic statuses, disability statuses, race, gender, all of those things,” she said. “Men and women get it. Transgender individuals can have an eating disorder. The symptom presentation might be different, but those core issues and belief systems can still be the same.”
While seeking treatment is a big step, it often begins with opening up to someone you trust, like parents or friends.
In addition, physicians and places like the Tech Counseling Center and the Renfrew Center located on Glenlake Parkway in Atlanta are valuable resources that McLain encourages individuals seeking help with an eating disorder to reach out to. Those in need can reach out to the Renfrew Center at 1-800-RENFREW for help with eating disorder struggles.
Online resources such as medainc.org and nationaleatingdisorders.org are also
Above all, the key to eating disorder awareness is finding the courage to speak out.
“I think we live in a very quiet, shame-based society, and we don’t talk about these things,” McLain said. “I think more people struggle with anxiety, depression, feeling homesick, whatever it is — it doesn’t even have to be an eating disorder — I think a lot of people struggle with more than what we think they do, and it can be really empowering — and connecting, in a way — to know that other people understand what it’s like to struggle in that way.”