BREMERTON, WA, UNITED STATES
Story by Douglas Stutz
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Feb. 23 to March 3, 2021 – brings focus on an issue that is misunderstood and misjudged by many.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the commonly held misconception is that any type of eating disorder is a lifestyle choice.
Eating disorders considered serious. Oftentimes they can be fatal illnesses, associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.
Preoccupation with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder. The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Defense Health Agency military treatment facilities like Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Bremerton have trained professionals to help those in need with a eating disorder.
“Eating disorders are serious illnesses affecting eight million Americans at any given time. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course. It is a mental disorder defined by abnormal eating habits that negatively affect a person’s physical and/or mental health,” explained Lt. Lorna Brown, NMTRC Bremerton Nutrition Management department head and registered dietitian.
Brown attest that there are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating.
• Anorexia involves a severe restriction of calories; there may be a fear of weight gain and strict “rules” about eating.
• Bulimia can involve these same fears and restrictions, but also involves binging and purging. This involves vomiting, exercise or use of laxatives.
• People with compulsive overeating disorder eating large amounts of food to cope with feelings. Food is often eaten without attention to hunger or fullness.
The NIMH lists eating disorder symptoms such as extreme restricted eating, excessive thinness (to the point of emaciation), a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight; intense fear of gaining weight; and distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perception of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
“Signs and symptoms include chronic dieting, hiding food in strange places to eat later, fear of not being able to control eating, trips to the bathroom following meals and sometimes running water to hide the sound of vomiting, are a few of them,” said Brown, noting that any eating disorder can have negative effects on a person.
“Eating disorders affect health in many ways. They put nonstop strain on someone’s body and brain. The lack of nutrition can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, hormone loss and electrolyte imbalances,” continued Brown, acknowledging that although anyone could be have such an eating disorder, they generally belong in two specific groups.
“While anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, they are most common in teen and young adult women,” Brown stated.
Compiled research indicates that eating disorders can affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, and genders. Studies also echo Brown’s assertion that eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood or later in life. These disorders affect both genders, although rates among women are higher than among men. Like women who have eating disorders, men also have a distorted sense of body image.
“Eating disorders are an illness that takes over someone as they struggle with disordered beliefs about their weight and shape, a lack of self-esteem, and the constant social emphasis placed on body image. It is not a choice or a lifestyle,” Brown commented.
Researchers also have discovered that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors, and are using advances in technology and science to better understand eating disorders.
Above all else, stresses Brown, an eating disorder needs treatment.
“All forms of eating disorders can be fatal. One in 10 people with an eating disorder will die as a direct result of the illness. It is critical for anyone with symptoms of an eating disorder to seek professional help. Early treatment gives the greatest chance for a full recovery,” said Brown.
An eating disorder over time can lead to thinning of the bones, mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness, lethargy, and a drop in internal body temperature causing someone to feel cold all the time. Even severe constipation, heart damage and brain damage.
Brown attests that when someone is diagnosed with an eating disorder, there is overlapping benefit available from Nutrition Services as well as Mental Health Counseling. Treatment is available and plans can be tailored to a person’s specific needs.
“Often these patients are best treated with the addition of Inpatient Care and a professional treatment team that offers Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to avoid relapse and to facilitate recovery. This may depend on how long a person has been struggling with this disorder,” said Brown, advocating for anyone with questions or concerns to talk to their health care provider or contact a nutritionist/dietitian.
The National Eating Disorder Association is (also) available for help and support by contacting the helpline several ways. Call 1-800-931-2237 Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST; text 1-800-931-2237 pilot hours are Monday-Thursday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST. For crisis situations, text NEDA to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. A message can also be left on the Helpline if it is not available and the call or message will be answered promptly.