Is Your Body Image Hurting Your Health? How Eating Disorders Affect Both Men and Women
Here’s a fact you likely never saw coming: Among all mental health issues, eating disorders are the most deadly.
Every 62 minutes, someone dies as a result of an eating disorder.
About 30 million people of all ages and both men and women have eating disorders, says the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Roughly one in five women struggle with either an eating disorder or disordered eating. When someone is diagnosed with an eating disorder, they have to meet certain criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association. Disordered eating is some sort of issue with eating that is dysfunctional and causes physical, mental challenges or both, says Dr. Darren R. Jones, licensed clinical psychologist. Part of the reason why eating disorders are so harmful is they touch the whole body. They can cause dehydration, heart issues and endocrine (gland) irregularities. People with eating disorders often suffer from depression, anxiety or personality disorders as well.
The common link with all eating disorders is they are influenced by today’s culture of thinness. “With more focus than ever on bodies, particularly expectations shaped by social media, it’s important to remember that many of the pictures we see are heavily edited. If you are struggling with negative thinking and body image issues, reach out for support,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.
About two times more females have eating disorders than males.
“We have evidence that eating disorders are increasing in the male population,” says Dr. Jones.
In the U.S., 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
The risk of death is slightly higher in men than in women, says Mysko. “Eating disorders for men carry a strong stigma, so rates of males who struggle with eating disorders are underreported. But more men are seeking help and sharing their stories,” she says.
Mental health experts have defined three unsafe eating patterns as clinical psychiatric disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Here’s what you need to know about each one:
About 1 percent of the female population in the U.S. meet the full criteria for anorexia, which is a refusal to eat that leads to low body weight for a person’s height and build. People with anorexia have a strong fear of gaining weight. There is a lot of obsessing and checking weight, and trying to appear very thin.
“There’s a [brain-body] component to how and why people develop eating disorders,” says Dr. Jones. “Brain issues and brain chemistry play a role. For example, most people sit down to eat if hungry and look forward to it. For a person with anorexia, eating is a horrible experience. They are flooded with thoughts compelling them to avoid eating.”
Influenced more by culture, bulimia is a bit more common than anorexia, says Dr. Jones. Bulimia may be as high as 3 or 4 percent of the population in females. Persons can be underweight, overweight or normal weight. You can’t tell from looking at them that they have it. There are moments of binge eating, often followed by behaviors to stop weight gain, such as vomiting, use of laxatives and diuretics, extreme exercising and repeated fasting. These behaviors need to happen at least once a week for a few months to meet the medical criteria for bulimia.
Generally, eating disorders, like bulimia, first appear in the teenage years or the early 20s. In many cases, the start of an eating disorder follows stress, trauma or a major life change. “In most cases, if a person in their 30s or 40s [has an eating disorder], they likely have been dealing with it for a long time. And they go through a lot to hide their behaviors,” says Dr. Jones. “Some people can handle it enough so no one notices.”
Binge Eating Disorder
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 2.8 percent of American adults will suffer from BED during their lifetimes. It’s only slightly more common in females than males. A BED diagnosis requires three or more of these behaviors: eating more quickly than normal, eating until you feel uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food without being hungry, eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much you’re eating and feeling disgusted with yourself, depressed or very guilty after eating.
Treatment and recovery
Eating disorders are treatable and people can and do get better. Before starting treatment, it’s important to talk to an eating disorders specialist. A broad approach to treatment is important because...approximately 50 percent of the people with eating disorders relapse.
Treatment is usually based on how severe the symptoms are and may involve a number of approaches, including individual or group talk therapy, nutritional counseling and medications. Sometimes inpatient treatment is needed. With severe anorexia, a person may need a hospital stay to get his or her weight up to a healthier level.
There are common contributing factors to eating disorders:
Pop culture, which idealizes thinness and prizes will power.
Brain chemicals interacting with genes and hormones.
Major life changes and painful events.
Traits like perfectionism, impulsivity, self-critical thinking, and problems controlling emotions.
“Ultimately, eating disorders are not about food. People engage in these unhealthy behaviors to deal with underlying issues in their lives, but they can manage and recover from these disorders with a support system,” says Dr. Jones.
“I see hope every day.”
Surprising things people don’t realize about eating disorders
There are common beliefs that eating disorders only happen to wealthy women or younger people. But they happen to all age groups and types of people.
You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at him or her. Eating disorders can be harmful even for people who appear to be in good health.
Eating disorders are not choices. It may seem that the person just has good self-control around food and simply wants to keep his or her figure. But these disorders are really about a lack of control over one’s thoughts about food.
Are you suffering from body image issues? Visit hap.org/behavioralhealth to find a provider and get started on your road to recovery. Or talk to a counselor by contacting our Coordinated Behavioral Health Management department at (800) 444-5755.