As someone who has worked in the mental health field for 30 years, I’m no stranger to working with clients who have suffered from eating disorders. This past week was Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with eating disorders and creating awareness about the mental health issue that affects approximately 1 million Canadians every year.
So what exactly is an eating disorder? In simple terms, an eating disorder is a mental health issue that leaves individuals completely pre-occupied with their weight. However, according to The Canadian Mental Health Association, eating disorders are not just about food. They are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control. They are complicated disorders that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth and self-esteem.
Unsurprisingly, eating disorders are most common in females. A recent report found that 3% of Canadian women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. This can happen for a number of reasons. Female body image is constantly critiqued in popular culture, and as a result, women are more likely to develop disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia in an effort to control their weight.
While eating disorders are more common in females, body image issues impact males as well. Men are exposed to a similar level of body critique, mainly that they need to be muscular and strong. This kind of societal pressure can result in men developing eating disorders or taking hormones like steroids to increase their muscle mass. Steroid use, like an eating disorder, also has a long-term negative impact on a person’s health.
Effects of eating disorders may not always be apparent. For example, anorexia sufferers generally have a very low body mass index (BMI), but people suffering from bulimia often maintain a relatively stable body weight. Here are some tips on how you can identify if a friend or employee is suffering from an eating-related mental health issue.
- Food obsession
It’s important to note when someone begins to obsess about food, for example, constantly counting calories or eliminating large groups of “bad” foods from their diet, especially if this was never a topic of conversation before.
- Excessive exercise
Physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, but when you begin to notice someone is taking his or her gym routine to the next level it can be cause for concern. People with eating disorders often attempt to “work-off” the bad calories they have consumed after a binge, to the point where they are putting their bodies through physical discomfort.
- Body image issues.
While losing weight can be a side effect of an eating disorder, it can also increase the level of anxiety a person may have towards their body. Even though they may be losing weight, someone suffering from an eating disorder might wear baggy clothes to cover up their body. Take notice if someone in your life begins expressing dissatisfaction with his or her body more frequently.
Symptoms of eating disorders often mimic the symptoms of depression due to the lack of energy, low morale and lack of sufficient sleep the disease causes. People suffering from eating disorders tend to isolate themselves from groups, especially if food is involved. If you notice someone exhibiting symptoms of depression while showing signs of negative body image or food obsession, it could be cause for concern.
The impact of any eating disorder can be devastating. From restricting the body of food to choosing to binge eat and then purge, eating disorders can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health. Short-term effects include poor digestion, kidney issues, anxiety and depression while long-term issues include infertility in women or death as a result of malnutrition.
Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, employer or friend, it’s important to know how to spot the signs of an eating disorder so if someone you know is impacted, you can help. Confronting someone about an eating-related mental health issue is difficult, but it’s important to get your loved one the help they need before they cause irreparable damage.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to get help. Contact your EAP or SAP provider for assistance, or speak to a medical professional.