Having an eating disorder is sort of like being the Boy Who Cried Wolf in the arena of mental illness and the associated medical world.
Part of the reason behind this is because they are so rampantly common — there is a wide array of behaviors and habits that are umbrella’d by the eating disorder diagnosis, all of which being susceptible to fluctuation in acuteness based on individual, age, circumstance, and genetic predisposition.
In short, its normal to have disordered eating. Its normal to hate your body and hurt yourself to try to change it, so long as that disordered eating doesn’t turn into an eating disorder.
At least, that’s how society views it. And more importantly, that’s how the bulk of medical professionals view it as well.
Yet the line between the human foible of self loathing and a diagnosable disorder is so blurred and vague, the mental illness goes untreated and, even if diagnosed, not recognized as an actual threat to the individuals health.
Because there is nothing wrong with a little bit of hunger, right?
Everyone vomits sometimes. It can’t be that bad if you do it on purpose every once in a while. Right?
The holes in professional treatment for eating disorders are not getting repaired, nor are they at least getting fewer and farther between. This particular brand of illness is largely avoided completely in the medical field, not only because it is so common but also because it is so difficult to actually treat. Or recognize as a threat, for that matter.
Society sees an eating disorder as a phase, as mild, as relatively normal.
Reality sees this fact:
Every 62 minutes, an individual dies as a direct result of their eating disorder in the United States.
That’s 23–24 people a day. Dropping like flies and completely ignored by the medical profession as a whole.
Just let the magnitude of that sink in.
Anorexia Nervosa (AN)
The thinner you are, the healthier your heart is. — A word-for-word quote, spoken to me by a 60-some year old cardiologist as I first started seeking treatment for my anorexia/bulimia back in 2014.
Anorexia nervosa is considered the world’s deadliest psychiatric disorder. This is not an exaggeration but rather a recognized fact taught in all medical fields. (Which would make you think it might be taken more seriously than it is, but I digress.)
Anorexia nervosa (not to be confused with just anorexia, which is simply loss of appetite and not a psychiatric mental illness,) effects 0.9% of women in the U.S at some point in their lifetime. It is portrayed by the media and viewed by large portions of society as a “desirable” illness. One that, rather than being the number one killer among psychiatric diagnoses, is simply something that will make you thin and pretty in that tragic way people like to favor.
The facts behind such a “lovely” illness paint a much different picture.
As stated above, every 62 minutes an individual with an eating disorder drops dead in the united states. The bulk of these individuals sport the AN diagnosis. Specifically to AN, 1 in 5 of these men and women die by suicide. The rest of the deaths are accidental results of their disorder.
It is also important to note that AN is not simply a “refusal to eat.” It is restrictive eating, often co-morbid with binging, purging, and other significant mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety.
Anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic disease in the United States, landing that title after asthma and diabetes.
Individuals with AN who fall between the ages of 15 and 24 carry a 10x higher risk of early death than their non-disordered peers. And that’s not to say that older men and women who struggle with this illness are safer — its just to say that AN is considered a young person’s disease, and the bulk of research out there is specific to that age group.
Men represent 25% of all people suffering from anorexia nervosa, and are at higher risk of dying from it because they are often the last to be diagnosed with such a “feminine” disease.
Bulimia Nervosa (BN)
Prior to detailing the recognized facts related to this particular illness, I’d like to disclaim that bulimia is, quite possibly, even more common than AN. It is not recognized as such because it is one of the more taboo eating disorders — rather than portrayed as “beautifully tragic” by the media, it is instead ignored and/or painted as the gluttonous sister of anorexia nervosa. Therefore, it lies much more hidden in the lives of those men and women who struggle with it, their efforts to cover up its subsequent behaviors being fueled by shame and disgust often unparalleled by any other diagnosis.
That said, please keep in mind that those claims are based solely off my 15 years worth of living with an eating disorder and the experiences I’ve gathered over that time. I am by no means a medical professional.
Here are the facts:
- Approximately 5% of individuals in America will suffer from BN in their lifetime.
- The standardized mortality ratio for BN is 1.93.
- BN is often co-morbid with other illnesses, but anxiety is often more commonly found in those struggling with bulimia than other issues such as depression.
- It should also be noted that BN is very commonly co-morbid with addiction issues such as drug/alcohol abuse.
While not recognized as the most fatal of the eating disorders, it is also very important to keep in mind that bulimia nervosa is arguably the most immediately dangerous.
- Binging and purging is a violent act to inflict upon the body that causes both visible and invisible damage to the individual.
- Risks include, but are not limited to: Gastric rupture, ulcers, pancreatitis, diabetes, and heart damage due to constant fluctuation of electrolytes within the body as a result of repetitive purging. This damage does not only occur as the individual purges, but throughout the hours following/between the episodes.
- Bulimia teeth — this one is self explanatory.
- Extreme dehydration from purging (regardless of if from vomiting or laxative abuse)
- Digestive irregularity
It is often said that bulimia is a more rampant disorder than even anorexia, yet is not officially recognized because of the shame and taboo nature mentioned above. Its also speculated that there is a larger ratio of men that suffer from BN than AN, but again, as far as I know this is just speculation.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Arguably the most common and “normalized” eating disorder, especially in men and women above the age of 25, BED is just as harmful as any of the other disorders and yet is often the least understood and recognized. It is commonly passed off as over eating, laziness, fatness, or the sheer inability to “just put down the fork.” This in turn perpetuates incredibly harmful levels of shame and self-deprivation in the men and women who suffer from it, rendering these individuals less likely to seek treatment or help and more likely to continue struggling in silence, despite the validity of their mental illness.
- BED is more than three times more common than AN and BN combined.
- It is also more common than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia. (Just let that sink in, folks.)
- Roughly half the risk of developing BED is genetic.
- Binge eating disorder is often co-morbid with anxiety disorders and other addictions, like that to drugs and/or alcohol.
- Health risks include, but are not limited to: gastric rupture, ulcers, insomnia, diabetes, and edema.
Many times, people will attempt to treat their BED through diets and restriction of foods or food groups. More often than not, this just perpetuates the binging cycle and gives the disorder a tighter grip on the individual trying to fight it — like someone struggling in quick sand. While treatment for this disorder (as well as the others) is still extremely vague and full of holes, it is important to keep in mind that the only “successful” treatment of BED listed on recovery platforms is the use of a structured meal plan free of restrictions and strict, “good/bad” labels on foods, as well as forms of professional treatment such as therapy and in some cases medication.
Its important that these individuals know they aren’t alone, and there is absolutely no shame in their illness. BED doesn’t make them gross, or lazy, or gluttonous. It is simply another valid eating disorder that requires treatment and gentle understanding, not shame and self-deprivation.
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder: The three big kahoona’s of the eating disorder world. That’s not to say there aren’t others that are just as important, such as OSFED or EDNOS. Those diagnoses are just as valid and are often made up of behaviors specific to all of the above, as well as being co-morbid with other illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and addiction.
In short, there is no cookie cutter image of any one of these diagnoses. More often than not, they manifest in ways specific to the individual and in men and women of all ages, races, cultures, and gender identities.
Yet the end result is the same: Every 62 minutes, someone dies from these illnesses.
This is because, despite the havoc that these disorders wreak on the men and women suffering from them, the treatment offered is still full of holes, hard to access, and wildly affordable even if you can access it.
Its criminal, honestly.
An eating disorder should not be taken lightly. It should not be joked about, passed off as “a phase,” or diminished in its validity. Especially by medical professionals, who (from my experience) often don’t know an ED from a hole in the ground.
Please pass on this information. Spread awareness that these are disorders that will very likely cost someone you know, or you yourself, life. And always keep in mind that, prior to death, the life stolen is made up of years and loves, relationships, potential…all lost to a disorder that is so rampantly common and out of control and yet so wildly misunderstood.
Talk to your doctors, loved ones, and friends. Communicate facts and press for better from the medical and psychiatric professions.
We are valid. We deserve better than what is currently offered.
More by me:
Things You Need to Hear If Your Body Image Sucks
As told by a veteran in the war against her own body.