Health care experts say individuals with eating disorders need immediate professional help because they are mostly complex mental health problems. Left untreated, they could have life-threatening implications so it’s important to act on them sooner rather than later. And while eating disorders can arise at an age, teens and tweens are particularly vulnerable. So the Ontario government’s new program to treat eating disorders in children and youth will hopefully provide timely intervention.
But this is easier said than done as the stigma surrounding mental health issues and misconceptions about eating disorders could lead to young people feeling ashamed and going to great lengths to hide their problems.
News reports on celebrities with anorexia and bulimia will have us believe that a negative relationship with food is typically a ‘female’ issue with ‘vanity’ thereby implying it’s a ‘choice’. But eating disorder specialists want us to know that under and overeating problems are an illness that needs early diagnosis and treatment.
The “thin is beautiful” image we are bombarded with is not necessarily the sole cause of eating disorders, some psychologists say.
Personality, mental health, social environment, biological and genetic factors—the reasons are different for affected individuals. A trauma too could be involved.
And while a higher percentage of girls and women are known to be affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, medical professionals want us to be aware that boys and men are not immune. Males too can have a distorted body image but may not want to acknowledge or talk about the problem for the fear of being perceived as ‘unmanly’, mental health counsellors point out. This could account for unhealthy eating habits being underreported and underdiagnosed among the male population.
Taking part in a sports activity that puts an emphasis on weight, like gymnastics and wrestling for instance, could increase the risk of developing an eating disorder irrespective of gender. And now a growing number of experts are concerned about the implications of the disruption in sports activities caused by the pandemic.
A registered dietician and sports nutritionist with Athletics Canada told a media outlet earlier this week that many teens, youth and athletes are struggling with disordered eating. In the absence of training, several are resorting to intermittent fasting to control their weight. This may not be suitable for growing athletes and could lead to eating disorders in a population already at a higher risk of being diagnosed as one, she warned.
A study showing that around two-thirds of new cases of eating disorders are in girls and women who have dieted backs this view.
Binge eating, on the other hand, is believed to affect both males and females equally. But here too there are misconceptions surrounding the disorder which could prevent affected individuals from getting the professional help they need. The biggest misunderstanding being that it is a ‘self-control’ issue that can be corrected by one’s ‘willpower’.
A New York eating disorder specialist opined that a lack of understanding of what eating disorders look like along with shame and weight bias typically prevent most individuals from getting treated or at least the right treatment. She felt societal belief that body weight was entirely within a person’s control was wrong and the biggest deterrent to getting much-needed help. It was also the reason why people in lower-weight bodies with binge eating disorder get missed, she said.
Eating disorder specialists want us to know that food restrictions during dieting can start a binge-eating cycle with resulting lack of satisfaction, combined with an emotional or other trigger in the person’s life, causing a binge. The person then feels bad and the cycle starts again.
Learning to recognize triggering thoughts and emotions and have a plan for what to do when binges happen can help treat the disorder.
Eating disorders are not just about food. They are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control, says the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). They are complicated illnesses that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth, and self-esteem. Pre-occupation with food intake and weight allows them to displace the painful emotions or situations at the heart of the problem and gives them a false sense of being in control.
An approach that focuses on support and understanding rather than control is best, the CMHA explains.
Treatments for eating disorders include therapy, education and medication. Psychological therapy is the most important component of eating disorder treatment, experts say, and the first step is acknowledging the problem needs professional help.