A Guide to Eating Disorders for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week
For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which falls February 25 through March 3 this year, Weill Cornell Medicine wants to help raise awareness for eating disorders, common mental health disorders that impact how people view and eat food.
“Eating disorders impact all people, regardless of race, age, sex, and gender, and they impact people of all shapes and sizes,” says Suzanne Straebler, Ph.D., PMH-BC, psychiatric nurse practitioner, certified cognitive behavior therapist, director of clinical care for the Eating Disorder Partial Hospital Program and Outpatient Eating Disorder Specialty Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “Eating disorders are treatable, and when someone receives well-implemented, evidence-based treatment, the chances of making a full recovery are quite good.”
Types of Eating Disorders
There are many types of eating disorders, and they all affect people differently. It’s always important to be seen by a specialist who can diagnose and begin accurate treatment, rather than guessing about it all which can lead to additional health issues.
“We see anorexia, bulimia, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and people who don’t completely fit into a category,” says Melissa Klein, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and assistant professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, and assistant attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Division. “We’re seeing younger and younger patients, including several 11-year-olds. We’ve also had people as old as 80 on the unit in the last year, so we see it spreading out more, as well as more socioeconomic classes and ethnicities.”
Some eating disorders we often see include:
- Anorexia nervosa—This eating disorder is characterized by avoiding food or severely restricting food. Anorexia nervosa is dangerous and can lead to extreme weight loss. People with anorexia nervosa often believe they are overweight or have a fear of gaining weight.
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)—People with ARFID are extremely selective with the amount or type of food they eat. This is different from anorexia nervosa because people with ARFID aren’t afraid of gaining weight. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ARFID is most common in childhood and can cause a child to not eat enough to develop properly.
- Binge-eating disorder—This disorder is characterized by eating large amounts of food over a short period of time. It is unlike bulimia nervosa because people with binge-eating disorder do not take measures to over compensate for the food they eat. People with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese.
- Bulimia nervosa—With bulimia nervosa, people often eat large amounts of food (binging) followed by extreme methods of getting rid of the food they ate, including making themselves throw up, taking laxatives and diuretics, or over exercising.
Risk Factors for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can occur in anyone, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status. However, according to the US Office on Women’s Health, women and girls are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Some sports that place an emphasis on the physical body, such as running, rowing, wrestling or ballet can also increase the risk of eating disorders. If someone feels pressure about the way they look and places too much emphasis on their body shape or weight, it can lead to an increased likelihood of starting to develop some unhealthy eating habits.
People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may also be more at risk for anorexia nervosa, and people with a history of dieting can correlate to eating disorders.
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
The signs and symptoms vary, depending on the particular eating disorder someone may have. Some general eating disorder signs to watch out for include:
- Avoiding food
- Being highly distressed after eating
- Changes in mood
- Changes in weight, either losing or gaining
- Eating large quantities of food
- Eating rapidly
- Excessive exercise
- Extreme fear of gaining weight
- Not showing up for dinner, particularly for children and teens
- Not wanting to go out with friends or family to eat
- Preoccupation with food and cooking
- Restricting food or certain types of food
- Skipping meals and snacks
- Sneaking food
- Spending a lot of time looking up diet trends and calorie counters
- Increased isolation and social withdrawal
- Increased talk about their weight, shape or dieting
- Visiting the bathroom a lot after eating
How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder
If you think someone you know has an eating disorder, Drs. Straebler and Klein recommend having an open, non-judgmental, curious conversation, depending on your relationship with that person. Some examples include asking questions like, “I notice you asked us to buy you a scale, I’m curious, what was your reasoning behind that?” or “You haven’t been eating the yogurt snacks you asked me to buy. Why is that?”
It's important the person you’re concerned about doesn’t feel judged. Remember, eating disorders are mental health disorders. The person can’t just snap out of it, and it isn’t their fault.
Many people start diets here and there, and it’s not always an indication of an eating disorder. However, if you do have a concern, the first place you should go to is the pediatrician, adolescent medicine or primary care provider to have a conversation. The primary care provider can offer guidance. The sooner you seek help for your loved one, the sooner they can start treatment.
Eating Disorder Treatment Options at Weill Cornell Medicine
Weill Cornell Medicine offers evidence-based treatments for all eating disorders. We have different levels of treatment, including outpatient treatment, partial programs, intensive outpatient programs, inpatient care for acute cases and residential treatment centers.
We offer individual, group and family therapy and nutrition counseling. In our outpatient clinic, we often start with talk therapy or psychotherapy before moving on to other treatments. For children and teens, this often involves family-based therapy, and for adults, we often offer cognitive behavior therapy.
We also have the only inpatient treatment center for eating disorders in the state of New York, which allows us to increase accessibility and intensive treatment for those who need it.
A specialist can help you or a loved one diagnose and treat an eating disorder. Find one today.