That eating disorders aren’t just a phase is one of the points the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hopes to drive home during its annual week of awareness, Feb. 22 to Feb. 28.

This particular idea lends itself to NEDA's overall campaign theme, “I Had No Idea…” Additional ideas include “I had no idea that my quest for health was making me sick” and “I had no idea that eating disorders are often overlooked or misdiagnosed.” Because the truth is anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder remain largely misunderstood.

The More You Know

Thirty million people — men and women of all different backgrounds, ages, and sizes — will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their life. NEDA reported a “disorder can include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.” Yet, despite this, only one in 10 men and women with a disorder will receive treatment. Of those men and women, only 35 percent receive treatment at a specialized facility.

The rise of social media has aggravated the situation with studies that found Facebook use may trigger eating disorders and lead to poorer body image. As it stands, up to 57 percent of adolescent girls — those between the ages of 9 and 11 — experiment with crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.

Of course, men are also subject to disordered eating. Separate studies have found nearly one in five boys is obsessive about their weight, suffering mainly in silence. UK researchers found that not only are disorders increasingly common in men, but they’re also slower to recognize their symptoms, let alone seek help.

By putting the focus on these unknown realities, NEDA will advance the relevant and life-saving information, education resources, and avenues both men and women need to get help. It’s a complex disorder, yes, but the single best thing friends and family can do for those they suspect are suffering is to intervene — the earlier, the better.

The Power Of Prevention

Signs of disordered eating aren’t always obvious, Health reported. Subtle insecurities, excessive exercise, and feeling shy or self-conscious about eating in public are all warning signs a loved one may have a problem.

There are physical symptoms, too, apart from dramatic weight loss. According to Health, “people who have been depriving their bodies of nutrition for extended periods of time often develop soft, downy body hair — almost a thin film of fur — on their arms and other parts of the body.” It's a symptom of starvation and the body's attempt at keeping itself warm, Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are, told the magazine.   

That said, feeling cold is another result of decreased nutrition and body fat. Though there’s no clear-cut way to spot a developing eating disorder. Similarly, there’s no right or wrong way to talk to someone experiencing one or more of these symptoms.

All you can do, as outlined by Australia’s National Eating Disorders Collaboration, is prepare yourself with relevant news and information. Then you want to initiate a calm, open conversation in a comfortable and safe place. Using “I” statements, such as “I care about you” or “I’m worried about you,” can convey how much you want to help, and support, them through a potential problem. NEDA offers a few toolkits to make this conversation even easier; each toolkit is tailored to who is conducting the intervention, be it a parent, educator, coach, or trainer.

Early intervention can significantly reduce the risk of certain behaviors developing into a full-blown eating disorder, NEDA reported.

A Little Help From Your Friends

Recovering from an eating disorder is possible with the right support and resources, which usually means finding a therapist. Surprisingly, eating disorder specialists aren’t immune to weight bias. One survey found 42 percent of professionals believed their obese patients weren’t motivated to fix their diet, while 64 percent doubted whether patients stuck to their recommended treatment. What’s worse is therapists were not above being condescending, judgmental, and plain unhelpful.

This is why it’s best to probe your friends and family for recommendations. This is a sure-fire way to ensure the kind of environment you'll be subjected to. And as mentioned earlier, there are specialized facilities across the country dedicated to recovering eating disorder patients.

One such example is The Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, a nationally recognized treatment center located in Baltimore. Whether friends or family who escort loved ones to a private or facility consultation, one thing is clear: the time is now.