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More Than a Number
Before I began working at The Kim Foundation, I had always viewed eating disorders as an issue that plagued high school girls who read too many glamour magazines. Restricting calories, or even skipping lunch all together, were not unusual occurrences at my high school. Even I, too often found myself criticizing my body’s curves and worrying about the number on the scale. I compared myself to all of the other girls in my class, and never felt thin enough. It is this kind of obsession about weight that can turn into a deadly disease. After all, eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (NIHM.org).
Today, our society glamorizes protruding ribs and collar bones, placing an unhealthy expectation on women. Having constant feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction can cause severe psychological issues. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly half of all people with an eating disorder meet criteria for depression (ANAD.org).
“It’s a common misconception that eating disorders are just an effort to have weight loss, or change body image when honestly, eating disorders are more the symptom of psychological distress, or some kind of psychological problem,” explained Crystal Zabka Belsky, OMNI Behavioral Health’s Eating Program Disorder Director, in an interview with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The starvation, laxative abuse, binging, and purging, are more of a secondary response to some type of emotional issue that’s going on.”
Nearly 20 million women and 10 million men, suffer from eating disorders every year (NEDA.org). Eating disorders are defined as an unhealthy relationship with food and weight, which interferes with many areas of a person’s life (ANAD.org). The four most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, or OFSED.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People with anorexia are noticeably underweight and often display these some of these warning signs; irritability, changes in mood and sleep pattern, low energy, avoidance of activities they once enjoyed, hair loss, and drinking excessive amounts of water.
“People will give excuses about why they are not eating. Saying things like, ‘Oh, I already ate lunch,’ when they haven’t is very common,” says Teresa Ryan, Director of Nursing at Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Clinic. “It’s also common for teens to avoid outings with friends when they know there will be food and snacks around.”
Bulimia nervosa, includes cycles of excessive eating followed by purging (self-induced vomiting), or abusing laxatives to compensate for the calories they take in during the binge. People with bulimia can sometimes be more difficult to spot, because they are often a normal weight. However, some signs to look for are depressed mood, disappearing immediately after meal, avoidance and withdrawal from normal activities, damage to tooth enamel, and consuming large quantities of food, but never gaining weight.
“Eating disorders can develop as a result of a major transition or life changing event,” says Zabka Belsky. “It develops as an attempt to feel in control.”
Binge eating disorder, which is characterized by binge eating sessions without purging, or abusing other compensatory measures such as diet pills or laxatives (NEDA.org). People with binge eating disorder are generally overweight.
“Over recent years, we have been seeing a growing number of patients who have been treated for binge eating, who begin to go to extremes,” explains Ryan. “While they have learned how to control the urges to binge, they become obsessed with weight loss, and exercise, and start to cross a dangerous line.”
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, or OFSED, is an eating disorder that does not fall within the definitions of the previous disorders; however, it still causes significant stress and impairment (NEDA.org). People are often diagnosed with OFSED if there is clearly a food issue present, but doctors are unable to collect enough information from the patient for an official diagnosis (AboutHealth.com).
All of these disorders are recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), and can be caused by a number of reasons including genetic, biological, cultural, social, and psychological factors (QZ.com).
Just as researchers have found chromosome variations that increase one’s risk for schizophrenia and depression, research has shown that the risk of developing anorexia can increase with the presence of particular chromosomal variations too. Psychiatrist Walter Kaye at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues, found a variation of a region on chromosome 1 that was common among people with anorexia (ScienceMagazine.org). These disorders have also been known to occur more often among people who have a history of eating disorders in their family.
As a parent, it is important to display healthy views on your own body image. Children can begin to shape their own views of their bodies by observing how you view yourself. Saying things like, “I’m so fat,” can build an unhealthy view of what is considered “fat.” Do be sure to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits, keep a healthy balance, allow your child to determine when he or she is full, talk about different body types, make mealtime positive, explain that media images are not all real, and tell them that you love them often (OMNI.com).
Never use food as a reward or punishment, or encourage your child to diet or comment on weight, don’t allow teasing about weight, and never base one’s worth on outward appearance. After all, we are all more than a number on a scale.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please do not wait to get them help.
To learn more about Children’s Hospital’s Eating Disorder Clinic and OMNI Behavioral Health’s Eating Disorder Program, please visit their websites:
Thank you to Teresa Ryan (Children’s Hospital), and Crystal Zabaka, (OMNI & Catholic Charities) for lending their expertise!
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014.