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Statistics are brutal: 10% of people globally will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Yet, there are a lot of misconceptions around this global problem, which makes dealing with it or supporting someone suffering even more challenging.
First things first, what is an eating disorder? Restricting calorie intake, avoiding certain food groups, bingeing or consuming vast amounts of food quickly, purging through vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, and other unpleasant methods or feeling guilty after a meal—are some of the most common behavioural patterns associated with eating disorders. Any of these habits, alone or in combination, can be indicative of the disease.
One of the most common eating disorder misconceptions is that change in dietary habits can tame or cure the disease. Unfortunately for all of us, such thinking is misleading at the root because eating disorders are psychiatric diseases. It is believed that restrictive diets and control over food intake is a patient’s compensatory mechanism to gain control over other triggering aspects of life, which are unique for everyone. Many will struggle with their self-image in society and will be highly impacted by the words of those around them. Some might suffer from other self-harm behaviours, while the root cause will remain the same.
The pathophysiology of eating disorders is very poorly understood by scientists and there are no definite treatment solutions that will work for everyone. Usually, there is more than one contributing factor to every case, including genetic and environmental risk factors. Sometimes the symptoms of eating disorders can be brought on by other mental conditions, such as depression or anxiety. Additionally, some psychological traits like perfectionism and a negative body image might contribute to the development of eating disorders. Social issues like internalised bullying, racial and ethnic assimilation, and a lack of social networks play a role as well.
Another common misconception is that eating disorders affect women exclusively. In reality, there are over 10 million boys in the US alone who suffer from the disease today. People are more prone to having such diseases during adolescence when identity and self-esteem develop, however, the first symptoms can appear during adulthood as well. When eating disorders are severe, they cause long-term health problems like hormone disbalance, infertility, osteoporosis, anaemia, heart, thyroid, autoimmune diseases and kidney damage, even in people with normal BMI.
Although eating disorders are among the most challenging psychiatric disorders to treat, effective therapies and interventions exist, and many people who receive treatment achieve long-lasting remission.
Because of the complex effects of eating disorders on the body and the mind, treatment usually includes a combination of nutritional counselling and overall health monitoring, psychotherapy, and in some cases, medication. Evidence-based psychotherapies exist as treatments for most eating disorders, including cognitive-behavioural therapy and family-based therapy. These talk therapies help people learn to understand and deal with underlying psychological triggers that drive eating disorder symptoms.
Treatment has a higher chance of success if started in the early stages of the disease development. But unfortunately, less than half of people with an eating disorder will seek and receive treatment. That's why education for young individuals, their parents, families, teachers and communities tremendously helps to lessen the stigma associated with eating disorders and expands access to diagnosis and treatment.
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