Eating disorders can be very difficult to spot, yet according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, up to 30 million men and women of all ages are suffering. The overwhelming majority are between 12 and 25 years old and female, with an estimated 10-15 percent being men.
In addition, about 50 percent of people with an eating disorder meet the criteria for depression. The long-term health risks are extremely serious. They include bone fractures, organ failure, heart failure, malnutrition, endocrine dysfunction and suicide.
Unrealistic media portrayal of women, and social pressures to be thin, are often cited as reasons that a man or woman will develop anorexia or bulimia. However, other causes can include addiction, obsessive compulsive habits, and the need to control especially in extremely stressful situations.
In adolescents and teenagers, changes in schools, moving, divorce, family dysfunction, trauma and bullying could be triggers.
Talking with a son or daughter about an eating disorder can be difficult. While the condition is widespread, those affected may become defensive, be in denial, or learn to hide the problem from those around them.
Here are three tips as to how you can help someone with an eating disorder.
1) Do some research.
Learn ahead of time about anorexia and bulimia. Discover the patterns that can occur, and the reasons someone might be involved in an eating disorder. Find out about options for treatment, and long-term health effects. Know that this is not something to be ashamed of or fear. The family should not tiptoe around the issue. Instead, they should become educated.
2) Try not to judge or get angry.
But do be honest. Explain your concerns as the adult in their life. Work to have open communication, but be prepared for a negative reaction. Focus on love and support, while understanding what they are going through, and hear their concerns. This may be difficult, if something beyond social pressure or media comes up, such as trauma or bullying.
3) Find help.
An eating disorder can be overcome but it is a long journey that may have backsliding and recurrences. Enlist the help of a trusted health care practitioner to determine whether any health damage has been done, get blood work, and a physical exam.
Seek out a counselor versed in the area of eating disorders — not all in the field of mental health have this expertise and training. Do research and ask. Having someone beyond the immediate family can be helpful, and may feel more safe or less judgmental.
Consider seeing a dietitian or nutritionist who is also skilled in dealing with those suffering from eating disorders. They can go a long way in terms of dietary education, the facts about nutrition, and food prep.
These tips do apply to men and women of all ages, even though the majority are usually college age and below. If you suspect a loved one has an eating disorder, do your best to show them compassion and love, while working with them to find appropriate help. It could save your loved one's life.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2015). Eating Disorder Statistics.
National Health Service. (2015). Anorexia Nervosa – Causes.
Reviewed August 12, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith