BY CASSIDY FOULDS
The only thing more defeating than having an eating disorder is having it go unnoticed. That’s why there are weeks dedicated to raising awareness of these disorders, and supporting those affected by them. At Conestoga College, Eating Disorder Awareness Week ran from Feb. 6 to 10, but there’s still plenty of time to show support.
During the entire month of February, a light is shone on the otherwise little-talked about topic. No one disorder is solely focused on. Everything from bulimia to anorexia athletica is acknowledged.
“Eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. Further, they are often misunderstood and seen as lifestyle choices or something that only happens to vain young women,” said Andrea LaMarre, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition. “They take a serious toll on people’s emotional, physical and relational health.”
LaMarre said our treatment systems for eating disorders are lacking, and that raising awareness can help alleviate some of the stigma many sufferers have and continue to face. As well, LaMarre said raising awareness among health-care professionals and policy-makers about helping those who suffer from eating disorders will greatly serve them and their supporters.
During Eating Disorders Awareness Week, there’s an emphasis on being able to identify an eating disorder – or ED, as some people call them. The reason for the emphasis is because of how difficult it is to recognize an ED unless the one suffering from it is fairly far along in the process. Lynn Robbins White, a counsellor at Conestoga College, said people tend to look for the wrong symptoms.
“I think people look for weight loss, and that’s kind of a misconception,” she said.
“Some more health-related issues do come up. Irritability, relationships start to deteriorate, grades at school deteriorate, falling asleep in class,” said Robbins White.
She also said those around people who suffer from an ED will observe stark relationships between the sufferer and food. What is meant by that is that someone with an ED may often skip meals willingly, or having an obsession with food, calorie counting, portion sizing and so on.
“Sometimes it can go undetected for a very long time,” Robbins White said. “And it takes energy to do that. So there are signs, we just need to pick up on them for people who are trying to mask them.”
People with an ED may only eat certain types of foods, or only eat at certain times in the day – “highly ritualized orientations to food, in other words,” said LaMarre. “It can also look like spending many hours a day at the gym, being unable to skip a workout or a run because you are sick or injured or have a social activity. It can look like throwing up after meals – though this is often done in secret. Bulimia often also causes tooth enamel erosion, making dentists often one of the first to spot the signs.”
Eating disorders develop unintentionally, which can make them hard to combat. It’s suggested that, for anyone who struggles with an ED or thinks they may be heading in that direction, that they seek ways to create a healthy relationship with food. Workshops dealing with EDs are particularly helpful as they’re geared toward specific problems and tailored to help ED sufferers fight what ails them. Robbins White also suggests taking part in cooking classes or enjoying some cooking shows. Channels like the Food Network have grown greatly in popularity for a variety of reasons, but Robbins White is fond of how food is positively represented. The variety and the entertainment puts food in a different light, for some.
“Overall,” LaMarre said, “it is important to note that no two eating disorders look and feel exactly alike. Equally, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ treatment for eating disorders. To provide adequate support, we need more systemic supports and more funding.”
To help with eating disorder awareness, give it a voice. For some, that might include doing research on the different EDs. For others, that might be spreading the word, or supporting those who are victims of an ED. Whatever it is, it must be done with some finesse, as sensitivity can be crucial to some of the sufferers with eating disorders.
“Tell the media what you think,” said Robbins White. “Criticize cultures that promote an unhealthy body image. Full recovery is possible.”