Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Eating Disorders Awareness Week | Dr. Ali Ghahary

From February 1st through to February 7th, the Canadian Mental Health Association joins the National Initiative for Eating Disorders and the National Eating Disorders Information Centre in observing Eating Disorders Awareness Week; a campaign designed to educate individuals on both the statistics and risks of eating disorders as well as to provide support for those suffering from eating disorders.

As part of this month’s awareness campaign, emphasis is put on the fact that eating disorders can affect individuals of all ages, genders. While there are no definitive numbers as to how many Canadians suffer from eating disorders, it’s suspected to range anywhere from 160,000 to 600,000 individuals. However, many individuals with eating disorders often do not get diagnosed, and eating disorders are actually considered to have the highest death rate out of any other mental health disorder. The most common disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (usually simply called anorexia or bulimia), which affect between 0.5% and 4% of Canadian women, as well as binge-eating disorder, which affects approximately 2% of Canadians.

There are several factors that can predict the onset of eating disorders, says Dr. Ali Ghahary, a family physician from Vancouver, Canada. These include poor self-image/low self-esteem, thin-ideal internalization, negative thoughts about food, family support deficits, social withdrawal, as well as a history of psychiatric disorders. Anorexia and bulimia both also come with their own sets of risk factors in addition to those already mentioned, including already having a low BMI (body mass index), dieting or fasting, general feelings of inadequacy, and even alcohol use. There are also other biological, psychological, social and interpersonal factors that may contribute to eating disorders. While scientists are always conducting research, studies have suggested that some individuals with eating disorders have unbalanced levels of chemicals in the brain that control the appetite, hunger and digestion. Psychological factors, as mentioned, can include low self-esteem, lack of control, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety and stress. Culture is also a huge factor when it comes to eating disorders in younger individuals (i.e. teenagers), as society often places value on needing to have what Hollywood considers the “perfect body.” Lastly, interpersonal factors. Interpersonal factors can include everything from having difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings, a history of being teased based on your size or your weight, a history of physical or sexual abuse, to troubled personal relationship with friends or family members.

While different eating disorders have different symptoms, there are certain behaviours and emotional changes one can watch for. For example, adhering to strict diets regardless of weight, frequent trips to the bathroom (especially right after eating), increase consumption in laxatives and diuretics as well as prescription stimulant medications and illicit drugs, hoarding large amounts of food, secretly, binging on food, avoidance of meals/denial of hunger, social isolation, preoccupation with weight and appearance, obsessing over calorie intake, heartburn, damaged teeth, mouth sores, and menstrual irregularities in women.

Because eating disorders can be complex, so is the treatment. Those with eating disorders will often be treated with two main focuses: Issues surrounding food, weight and physical condition, as well as any underlying psychological conditions. Because eating disorders are considered to be a form of a mental health disorder, the primary focus at the beginning of treatment is often on psychological issues and finding out what made the individual develop an eating disorder to begin with. Once that is tackled, you will then begin to focus more on food, weight and other physical aspects of your health.