Discussing the information and myths associated with eating disorders

Content warning: please be advised, the following article discusses/mentions eating disorders, mental illness and suicide which may be triggering to some.

There is a stigma surrounding eating disorders because to discuss matters around food, weight, or anything of the sort in North American culture is arguably “taboo.” However, according to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, while mental health is responsible for most premature deaths in Canada, eating disorders have the highest overall mortality rate of all mental illnesses. Statistics Canada reported that approximately one million Canadians have a diagnosis for an eating disorder. These are the skeleton statistics; for example, 20% of people with anorexia nervosa and between 25-35% of people with bulimia nervosa may attempt suicide in their lifetime. These are scary numbers, so in honour of National Eating Disorder Awareness week (February 1 to 7, 2023), let’s discuss disordered eating and eating disorders.

I would like to begin by clarifying the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating is abnormal behavior involving food, such as restricting what you eat, excessive exercise, skipping meals, eating the same thing every day, etc. Despite the fact that these behaviors may be infrequent and not impact daily life, that does not mean they are not serious. If you or someone else begins developing these behaviors, it is important to nip them in the bud or else it may lead to an eating disorder. An eating disorder diagnosis is based on frequency and severity—something becomes a disorder when it affects every aspect of your life, from social engagements to the way you think.  

It should also be noted that while anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder tend to be the most frequently cited, there are other disorders. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is one less-discussed example, which involves avoiding or restricting intake of certain foods for various reasons such as disliking the texture. Furthermore, there are eating disorders that are recognized but have no formal diagnosis, such as orthorexia, which involves a preoccupation with “clean eating,” such as only eating natural foods or foods deemed as healthy. Notably, many eating disorders are disguised as  diet culture. Another less recognized disorder is anorexia athletica, or compulsive exercising as a way of controlling body shape or gaining a sense of pride. This disorder involves a preoccupation with exercise to the extent that it takes precedence over all other activities.

Who is at risk for developing an eating disorder? There are many potential risk factors for developing an eating disorder. Biological risk factors can include genetic influences, a previous history of dieting, and Type 1 Diabetes in women. There are also psychological and social risk factors such as body image dissatisfaction, perfectionism, bullying, and the societal influence of weight and body ideals. It should be noted that this is a minimal list of potential risks, and these factors do not provide a guarantee for developing an eating disorder.

A very common misconception is that women are the only individuals who can get an eating disorder; this is simply not true. Eating disorders do not discriminate against gender, race, age, or whether or not you believe in house hippos. With that said, there are certain trends in prevalence. They tend to be more common in adolescence and early adulthood. Females are typically at higher risk than males. However, the stereotype that only women can get eating disorders may be significantly affecting these statistics. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Center Bulletin (2014), diagnosis of and treatment for eating disorders has largely revolved around women. As a result, men may have a hard time recognizing an eating disorder for themselves. Furthermore, many of the tools used for diagnosis of an eating disorder were developed for women and do not account for men. Symptomatically speaking, disordered eating appears differently in men than in women. This could be because there are different societal standards for each sex. Females are supposed to strive for an hour-glass figure and a thin physique. Men are typically idealized to have that “V” shape, with broad shoulders, chest, and muscles. However, even if the behaviors they engage in to obtain such a physique are unhealthy, they may be admired for the results. As a result of the above, and of the stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, the number of men who have an eating disorder is likely misrepresented due to lack of identification/diagnosis and/or under-reporting. 

I would also be remiss, given the student athlete population at Mt. A., not to mention the prevalence of disordered eating and eating disorders among student athletes. The type of sport students participate in is noted to influence these behaviors. More specifically, disordered eating may happen in order to develop the desired body type for the sport. Lean sports, so named for their tendency to recruit slender players, seem to exhibit a greater risk for developing these behaviors because of the standards their body types should meet. Thin, tall physiques are desired for optimal performance in sports such as swimming, soccer, volleyball, and gymnastics. It can also include sports that are dependent on weight, such as wrestling. Some studies have reported that disordered eating and eating disorders are more prevalent among athletes than non-athletes. 

This has been a brief overview of some eating disorders and who they affect. There is far more information available through accredited organizations and research studies than has been provided here. I highly recommend looking at websites such as the National Eating Disorder Information Center (nedic.ca), the Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca), the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (nied.ca), as well as any other reputable source if you have further interest in the topic, are dealing with, or know someone who may have, an eating disorder. 

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