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Eating Disorders Are the Unspoken Public Health Crisis of Our Time

Photo: Courtesy of Volkan Olmez

Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, sexuality or background. In the U.S. alone, 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point. Despite the prevalence, severity and complexity of these illnesses, myths and stigma abound and too often they go undetected. They are brushed off as a “fad” or a “phase.”

A deadly problem

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder — are grave, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. Kidney failure, osteoporosis, tooth decay, heart attack — these are all potential health consequences. And more than that, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

It is also common for eating disorders to occur in tandem with one or more other psychiatric disorders. According to research, alcohol and other substance abuse disorders are four times more common in those suffering with eating disorders than in the general populations. Depression and other mood disorders co-occur quite frequently and those with eating disorders may also show an elevated risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bullying, weight shaming and trauma all dramatically increase a person’s chance of developing disordered eating. But although eating disorders are major public health concerns, most of those who struggle don’t get the help they deserve.

A public health duty

The good news is that these disorders are treatable and recovery is possible, especially with early intervention. The most effective treatment is holistic and includes psychotherapy or psychological counseling. These treatments should be coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. Because everyone’s experience is different, it’s critical that treatment be culturally sensitive and tailored to the individual’s problems, needs and strengths.

Everyone deserves to live a full, happy life free from disordered thoughts and behaviors. With dedication to a treatment plan and the ongoing support of friends and family, many people are able to develop healthy coping strategies, thought patterns, body image and sense of self. Those affected should know that they are not alone and that help is available.

This National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, it’s time to take action and fight for change. We need to take eating disorders seriously as other public health concerns. Let’s bust the myths and get the facts. It’s time to shatter the stigma and increase access to care. It’s time to talk about it.

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