I hear a lot of variations of this question.
“Does my loved one have an eating disorder?”
“Is this normal or do I have an eating disorder?”
“I found food wrappers hidden in my child’s bedroom, does he/she have an eating disorder?”
“I have a friend who rarely eats and won’t take a break from exercising, does she have an eating disorder?”
You would think it would be easy to know if you had a serious mental health disorder. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is a lot of misinformation out there about eating disorders.
This is through no fault of their own, there are a lot of things I am not trained in working with and it would be impossible to be trained in every problem or issue you
might encounter. Medical and mental health professionals are the front line to early detection of eating disorders and the need for better screening is crucial. I cannot tell you how many progressed eating disorders I have encountered where a medical or mental health professional told the person they were “fine.” Lives have been lost because of this.
Here are three steps you must take to be better able to recognize an eating disorder when you see it:
- Ask the Right Questions– People struggling with eating disorders aren’t always the sensationalized version you have seen in movies and documentaries, in fact very few are. We have to go further in our questioning to really understand what we are looking for. Knowing what you are looking for will help you to ask the right questions. Moving beyond stereotypical views of eating disorders will help. I rarely consider someone’s weight as a diagnostic criteria- instead I look at feelings and behaviors like weight loss methods, exercise routines, meals (quantity, variety, and frequency), sleeping patterns, social interactions, thoughts about body (size, shape, and weight). I ask the same questions regardless of body size and I do this for every single client, every single time!
- Don’t Judge by a Person’s Body– Even doctors and mental health professionals fall into this trap! Did you know that a person of any body size can struggle with anorexia nervosa? Did you also know that you can be a person living in a “typical size” body or even a larger body (whatever the heck either of those mean) and be experiencing serious physical health complications because of eating disorder behaviors? Just because a person isn’t emaciated or whatever image you have always carried around about a person with an eating disorder doesn’t mean they aren’t physically ill. Just because a person isn’t physically ill doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering mentally.
- Realize that Eating Disorders are Serious– I hear it all the time “but doesn’t EVERY person have an eating disorder?” I think this confusion exists because eating disorder behaviors are sadly normalized, which makes it even harder to prevent, treat, and diagnose them . This attitude basically belittles the fact that eating disorders are the deadliest mental health disorder. In fact, every 62 minutes a person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. The “everyone has an eating disorder” argument was created to make light of something very serious. Everyone doesn’t have an eating disorder, but even if everyone did that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve help. Lots of people text and drive, that doesn’t make it safe or okay.
Now that we have removed a faulty lens that many of us use to view eating disorders we might be better able to to see what is really there. This blog will be the first in a series where I plan to explore each eating disorder diagnosis in depth. For now, I am thinking you may have stumbled on this blog in curiosity or in a state of worry for yourself or a loved one.
If this is the case I want to give you a tool to use to identify red flags for eating disorders. However, I also want you to know that if you find yourself struggling with body and food thoughts it would never hurt to reach out to an eating disorder specialist and get help. Even if you don’t have any signs or symptoms on this list. If these thoughts and feelings are causing you pain or stopping you from doing or being what you want then they are worth addressing and talking about with someone.
My colleague Sara Upson and I came up with this great tool to help professionals and lay-people recognize eating disorder/disordered eating patterns. It is not an exhaustive list or meant to be a substitute for a thorough mental health assessment but as eating disorder professionals in Tyler, Texas we wanted to create a tool that we could get into the hands of people in our community. As a therapist, who works almost exclusively with eating disorders, I know first hand how important early detection is. Feel free to download this checklist, email me and I can send you a free PDF copy.
If you stumbled on this blog through google or someone shared it with you, I know that must mean that something has been bugging you for a while. Which tells me that you are probably exhausted from constantly thinking about food and your body or that you care for someone who has been struggling with eating disorder behaviors. I know how painful this can be. Let me just say, I am sorry that this is happening. There is help. Research your options and look for an eating disorder specialist that can help you process what you are going through.
100% recovery from an eating disorder is possible!