With 9-15 September being Body Image & Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’ve taken a look at what eating disorders are and what are some common myths. Only by understanding the facts, can we provide the best support to people living with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are a serious mental illness that have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
According to the Butterfly Foundation, currently around 4% of the Australian population is experiencing an eating disorder, which equates to around one million people.
Suicide rates for anorexia are said to be 32 times higher than the general population.
There are a few different types of eating disorders that many people have heard of, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating disorder.
There are also other types of eating disorders that fall under the name Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) which refers to people who show symptoms of one or more eating disorder but don’t meet the full criteria for a diagnosis of one single disorder.
Body dissatisfaction is common amongst those with eating disorders, and having a poor body image can be a predictor of developing a serious eating disorder.
Body image, or body dissatisfaction, is the perception, thoughts and feelings a person has of their physical self.
How a person perceives their own body is not always an accurate representation of what that person actually looks like.
For example, a person may vastly overestimate their size and weight and believe that they need to lose weight.
The use of social media and technology has also added to pressures to conform to a certain body image and risk of developing eating disorders.
Research shows a link between spending more time on social media platforms and engaging with more appearance-related content (such as images on social media), and increased body image concerns and disordered eating.
Jae Eng, Centre Manager at the Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield said: “We have a long history in society of recognising people, mainly females, for their success based on their physical appearance. Often compliments are centred around this, such as you look so good, you’ve lost weight, rather than other personality traits, attributes or accomplishments.”
Additionally, when people have negative feelings about their body, it can lead to preoccupation with body shape and weight.
When a person is dissatisfied with the way they look, they may isolate themselves because they feel bad about their appearance, or employ destructive behaviours such as excessive exercise, as a means to change their appearance.
Myths about eating disorders
There are many common myths about eating disorders and it’s important to understand the facts to provide the best support.
Only women develop eating disorders
Adolescent girls are more prone to body dissatisfaction than adolescent boys; however the rate of body dissatisfaction in males is rapidly approaching that of females. Eating disorders in males are also often manifested differently to eating disorders in females.
Eating disorders can effect anyone across all genders, ages, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.
Eating disorders result from a person’s vanity and are a lifestyle choice
These conditions are serious and are a potentially life threatening mental illness.
Eating disorders are so severe because they are not only a mental illness, but they can also result in physical medical complications, which can affect every major organ in the body.
As a result, the mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses, and over 12 times higher than that for people without eating disorders.
Parents are to blame for their children developing eating disorders
It was previously believed that eating disorders were a result of childhood trauma and a person’s need to control a chaotic home environment. However, there is no evidence that eating disorders can be caused by parenting styles.
There is evidence showing that eating disorders can be genetic, so if someone has a family member with an eating disorder, they may be at higher risk of develop one themselves.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder
A key challenge in today’s society is that diet and exercise forms a large part of culture and thus normalises dieting behaviours, and this can also be early signs of an eating disorder.
For example, people may display disordered eating as standard practice: fasting or restrained eating, skipping meals, binge eating, self-inducted vomiting, restrictive dieting, unbalanced eating ( cutting out carbs or fats, misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas, steroid and creatine use, diet pills).
Contrary to popular belief, dieting does not actually work; research has shown that at least one to two thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they have lost within four or five years.
Language is particularly importantly when supporting someone with an eating disorder: avoid putting the focus on food; instead try to talk about how the person is feeling, do not use blame or manipulation.
Due to the complex medical complications and high mortality rate, it is important to seek professional advice, and adopt a team approach to managing an eating disorder.
Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder can take its toll – if you’re in this situation it is important to get support for yourself as well.
Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders National Helpline – 1300 33 4673, 8am to midnight 7 days a week.
For more local support, The Australian Centre for Eating Disorders has a register of practitioners trained in supporting people with eating disorders.