It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), roughly half of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. 62.3 percent of teenage girls and 28.8 percent of teenage boys report trying to lose weight, while 58.6 percent and 28.2 percent of teen girls and boys respectively are actively dieting. Between 35 and 57 percent of adolescent girls are estimated to engage in behaviors like crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting or the use of diet pills and laxatives.

There's always been a need for better education and awareness about dieting, weight, eating disorders and health, but as these statistics demonstrate, this need is more urgent now than ever.

Enter National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, NEDA’s annual week of spreading awareness on social media and in the journalism community about the effects of eating disorders and how to help ourselves and others work towards healthier and unrestrictive relationships with food and body image. 

The awareness week extends from February 22 to February 28, and its theme this year is “Every Body Has a Seat at the Table,” a nod to NEDA’s focus on diversifying the conversation surrounding those affected by eating disorders while emphasizing that everyone deserves the opportunity to freely enjoy meals. The purpose of the awareness week is simply to help inform others of eating disorders’ impact on a significant part of our population. Throughout this week, NEDA will be publishing myriad blog posts, live-streaming roundtable discussions about pertinent topics in disordered eating, and sharing infographics on social media to aid in this mission. 

I strongly encourage you to explore and take advantage of the numerous resources that NEDA will have available during this very important time of awareness, but in the meantime, here is some general advice for being aware of disordered eating behaviors in yourself and in others:

  1. 1. Know the warning signs

    Woman staring at phone at night

    Eating disorders are frequently referred to as “silent illnesses” because of the ease with which their behaviors can remain a secret. However, with an understanding of some of the most common warning signs, many eating disorders can be identified by close family and friends. Here is a lengthy, though not exhaustive, list of some symptoms to look out for:

    - Noticeable changes in weight, especially over a short period of time

    - Frequent discussion of body image

    - Practice of extreme diets and/or rigid calorie counting

    - Fear of fatness or weight gain

    - Difficulty concentrating and sleeping

    - Dizziness

    - Weakness

    - Sudden mood swings and changes in emotion

    - Easily fatigued

    - Absolute refusal to eat traditionally “unhealthy” foods, even on rare or special occasions

    - Abnormal periods or complete lack of a menstrual cycle (in women)

    - Dry and brittle nails

    - Refusal of meals or food because of a lack of appetite

    - Consistent use of bathroom immediately after eating

    - Increasingly sensitive to cold

    - Worn skin or calluses on backs of hands

    - Excessive or obsessive exercise

    - Frequently wears layers or oversized clothing

    - Isolation or secrecy from others

    - Anxiety about eating in public

    - Ritualistic behaviors at meal time, such as sorting food

    - Thinning or damaged hair

    - Stained teeth

    - Incessant need for control

    - Attachment to low-calorie or appetite suppressing foods 

    - Frequently weighing self

    - Preoccupation with sizes and body measurements

    While the presence of these symptoms most certainly depends on each individual and the kind of eating disorder they are battling, it’s highly beneficial to be cognizant of some of these concerning behaviors.

  2. 2. Be familiar with the different types of eating disorders

    Too often, we are exposed to conversations about eating disorders that only pertain to anorexia nervosa with the occasional mention of bulimia, but the reality is that there exists a multitude of eating disorders that impact millions of people annually. For example, binge eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often in short periods of time and to the point of physical discomfort. Similarly, orthorexia is a newly recognized eating disorder that revolves around an invasive obsession with healthy eating. Expanding your knowledge of various types of eating disorders is an excellent strategy to spread your personal awareness!

  3. 3. Understand risk factors

    overhead view of a woman sitting in front of her laptop

    While it is incredibly important to emphasize that anyone of any race, size, age, gender, or socioeconomic status can suffer from an eating disorder, there are specific factors that place certain groups at an even higher risk of enduring this struggle. NEDA separates the most major risk factors into three groups: biological, psychological and social. 

    Biological factors include genetic contributors and past behaviors, such as history of disordered eating in close relatives or loved ones, personal history of restrictive dieting, or having type 1 diabetes. Psychological eating disorder factors have more to do with personality and mental state, where individuals with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem as well as those who struggle with perfectionism or body image are at heightened risk. Finally, social factors like weight stigma, bullying or harassment in childhood, and emphasis on obtaining an ideal body type can also contribute to a higher likelihood of the onset of an eating disorder. 

    Someone who has one or many of these risk factors isn’t guaranteed to have an eating disorder in the same way that someone without any of the risk factors could certainly still develop disordered eating habits, but nonetheless, many of these factors have been found in those who suffer from eating disorders and are important to be cognizant of in ourselves and our loved ones.

  4. 4. Be aware of available resources

    If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, it is important to reach out to someone; you could save a life! While talking to a trusted friend or relative is always a great approach, it can sometimes be easier to ask for help confidentially from a stranger. If this is your situation, contact the NEDA Helpline by phone call, text or live chat to receive the assistance you need. Recovery is always possible, and more often than not, it begins with just taking the first step of opening up to someone else!

Throughout the course of this NEDAwareness Week, I hope that you continue to learn more about eating disorders and how to combat this serious mental illness. Always remember that your body is beautiful and that a desire to obtain optimal physical health should never become obsessive or come at the expense of your mental health!