National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

February 21-27 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week!

Awareness of eating disorders has gone up substantially in recent years. Even if health class in school doesn’t get the message across, pop culture has helped start the conversation about both the physical and emotional tolls eating disorders can have. When it comes to eating disorders, most of the focus is on women, but men are susceptible to eating disorders, too. Let’s look at two common eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa – and how they affect both men and women.

Anorexia nervosa, or simply anorexia, starts with a fear of gaining weight and an obsession about body weight that leads to self-starvation and excessive weight loss. For women, this is usually a dramatic decrease in food intake, or no eating at all. For men, this can be associated with compulsive exercise, frequently weighing himself, or a preoccupation with body building. No matter what gender, there is excessive dieting, denial of hunger, or thoughts of being “fat” despite continued weight loss.

Bulimia nervosa, or just bulimia, is characterized by self-induced vomiting to counteract binge eating. This eating disorder is similar for men and women, presenting as a feeling of being out of control while eating a large amount of food, then using laxatives or diuretics to purge the food out and control weight gain. For both genders, this behavior stems from an emotional insecurity about the body’s appearance. Those with bulimia can often fixate on a certain body part (abs, thighs, arms, etc.) and spend inordinate amounts of time working out.

Both of these eating disorders can have severe emotional and physical effects. But what if you start to recognize those symptoms in a friend or family member? How do you start that difficult conversation in hopes of getting them help? This is how the National Eating Disorders Association recommends approaching the subject:

  • Set a time to talk – don’t rush the conversation, set aside a time away from distractions to discuss your concerns
  • Communicate your concerns – share specific examples of when you were worried and why you think those instances may be indicating a problem
  • Avoid conflicts – it’s common for a friend to refuse to acknowledge the problem. Stay calm and re-emphasize your feelings of concern, make sure they know you’re there as a support system rather than an accuser.
  • Avoid placing blame – try not to use “you” statements like, “you are acting irresponsibly.” Instead, shift the focus onto yourself with statements like, “I’m concern about you because you haven’t been eating much.”
  • Don’t give simple solutions – statements like, “If you would just start eating again, everything would be great,” don’t help and only exacerbate the situation
  • Encourage talking to a professional – whether it’s a doctor, a counselor, a nutritionist, or another healthcare professional. If you feel comfortable, offer to go to their first appointment together. Dealing with eating disorders is difficult for both sides, so don’t be afraid to talk to someone about you, as well as your friend.

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About the Author:

Lina Hu is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis in the department of Biomedical Engineering. Her thesis centers on discovering molecular imaging probes for earlier cancer detection and better treatment planning. Throughout her time at UC Davis, she has collaborated with both domestic and international groups and successfully led and participated in team-based projects that have resulted in multiple academic journal publications and presentations at scientific conferences around the country.

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