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5 things you didn’t know about eating disorders, and how to seek help

Eating disorders are surrounded by myths and stigma, making them even more difficult to diagnose and treat

teenage man looking into mirror
What is orthorexia? Who is affected by eating disorders? A USC expert updates traditional thoughts about the problem. (Photo/Shutterstock)

You probably know someone who is struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder over the course of their lives. With National Eating Disorders Week continuing through March 4, Michelle Zappas — clinical assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work — lends her expertise to dispel common misconceptions about this all-too-common affliction.

1. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t the only eating disorders out there.

Many people associate eating disorders with severely controlling and reducing caloric intake, but in reality, this is just one presentation of a diverse set of disorders. Disordered eating encompasses a spectrum of behavior that often defies categorization.

Fad diets, crash dieting and overeating are also examples of disordered eating behaviors, but these have been much more normalized by our culture and media than anorexia and bulimia. Roughly 60 percent of adults with eating disorders are diagnosed with “eating disorder not otherwise specified.”

2. “Orthorexia” has become more prevalent.

Drawing the line between a healthy vigilance surrounding one’s eating habits and disordered eating can be complicated. Health-conscious individuals may prioritize fitness and clean eating without experiencing psychological distress or anxiety over food, or fears of gaining weight.

Orthorexia, on the other hand, is characterized by obsessive behaviors in pursuit of a healthy diet. The rising popularity of elimination diets, like those that eliminate gluten or dairy, make these distinctions difficult. But obsessive behaviors and extreme rigidity about eating habits and weight fluctuations mark the divide between healthy vigilance and pathological behavior.

3. Men are just as much at risk of developing eating disorders as women are.

While twice as many women as men are diagnosed with eating disorders in the United States, these statistics don’t tell the whole story. Men tend to remain under- or undiagnosed due to several factors: for one, the stigma against eating disorders and seeking psychological help discourages many men from seeking diagnosis and treatment. Because of the shame that surrounds seeking professional help, some studies have suggested that the rate of mortality for men with eating disorders is higher than that of women with eating disorders.

4. Social media is exacerbating, and increasing the prevalence of, eating disorders.

The fear of gaining weight or being fat, as well as the social stigmas surrounding weight gain, are huge driving factors toward disordered eating. These fears are fed by social media and fitness-focused influencers who have an enormous impact on young people — especially young women.

Social media exacerbates the problem by fostering communities that encourage anorexic behaviors in the pursuit of an “Instagram-worthy” physique. These groups or accounts glorify images of women with severely low BMIs, reinforcing behaviors of self-starvation and purging among their followers.

5. People with eating disorders are at much higher risk for suicide.

Many people with eating disorders suffer from a variety of other mental health conditions, including depression. Suicide is the most common cause of death among people with eating disorders, and about 25 percent of people with eating disorders engage in self-harm. In addition to medical intervention, these patients require a long-term psychological treatment plan to support them in their personal and professional lives.

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5 things you didn’t know about eating disorders, and how to seek help

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