Five Things You Should Know About Eating Disorders

Five Things You Should Know About Eating Disorders

By April Kapu, DNP, APRN, ACNP-BC, FAANP, FCCM, FAAN

February 21-28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This week is intended to educate the public about the realities of eating disorders, correct misconceptions and provide support to those struggling and their families.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, eating disorders have increased, especially among adolescents and young adults. An analysis of 80 hospitals found there has been a 25% increase in the number of adolescents seeking eating disorder treatment since March 2020, and the National Eating Disorder Association helpline reported a 40% increase in call volume.

With the number of people experiencing disordered eating on the rise, it’s now more important than ever to understand what goes into this issue and how you can support those people in your life who are struggling. We’ve compiled a list of the top five things you should know about eating disorders.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as illnesses associated with a severe disturbance in a person’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions, and they may often include a preoccupation with food, body weight and shape. These eating behaviors can consist of restrictive eating, sometimes to the point of starvation, binge eating and purging.  

Who is affected by eating disorders?

Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds and body weights. Although eating disorders often appear when a person is a teenager or young adult, they can also develop later in life or during childhood, and they may impact people as young as five years old as well as those over 80 years of age. In fact, 28.8 million Americans, about 9% of the United States population, will have an eating disorder at some point in their life.

What are the risk factors for eating disorders? 

The risk factors for eating disorders consist of biological, psychological and social issues. Some of the most common examples of these components include having:  

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty expressing emotions.
  • Feelings of inadequacy or helplessness.
  • A history of being bullied, especially due to weight or appearance.
  • Extreme societal or family expectations related to appearance.

What are the symptoms and side effects of eating disorders?

Symptoms and side effects of eating disorders can look different for each person. Some of the usual symptoms include:

  • Having an abnormally low or high body weight.
  • Eating an irregular diet.
  • Wanting to eat alone or secretly eating.
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals.
  • Obsessing with one’s physical appearance or losing or gaining weight quickly.

Eating disorders can cause neurological and endocrine damage, as well as damage to the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. In the most severe cases, eating disorders may lead to death; 10,200 deaths in the United States each year are the direct result of an eating disorder.

How can you help those struggling with eating disorders?

Understanding eating disorders – what they are, the risk factors and the symptoms – is the first step in being able to help someone who is struggling. There are a variety of therapy and treatment options that can be tailored to each person, such as individual and group therapy and nutritional counseling. Helplines and medications may also assist those working toward eating disorder recovery.

During this Eating Disorder Awareness Week, take time to learn more about eating disorders. If you have questions about disordered eating or need help for yourself, a friend or a family member, talk to your nurse practitioner to create a plan.