The Grapevine

Eating Disorders Can Affect Anyone: How To Spot Warning Signs

Some of us tend to associate eating disorders with a specific subset of the population, probably without even realizing it. For instance, it may be perceived as a problem that mostly affects teenagers or as a condition that only women can suffer from.

In reality, anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, body type, or socio-economic status — a message that is now being placed under the spotlight by mental health experts and survivors of the disorder.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which ran from February 25 to March 3, chose "inclusivity" as the theme for 2019. Karla Mosley, ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), opened up about her personal experience of struggling with food.

"I'm a woman of color, and I certainly didn't know that people like me had eating disorders," she said as a recent guest on NPR's Code Switch podcast. "It seemed like it was a white, rich female adolescent disorder."

Due to such misconceptions, certain groups including heterosexual men, Hispanics, black teenagers, middle-aged and older adults, etc. may be less likely to receive help for their eating issues.

Estimates say around 30 million Americans are living with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, many of whom are not diagnosed and given treatment. Aside from acknowledging that all types of individuals are susceptible, it is important to learn some of the warning signs.

Some of the physical signs, according to Health, might include swelling along the jawline, dry and blotchy skin, sunken cheeks, and the development of soft, fur-like body hair.

While anorexia involves severely limiting how much one eats, bulimia is characterized by a cycle of binge-eating and then taking extreme measures to prevent weight gain. This may involve obsessive exercising, inducing vomiting, misuse of laxatives, and more. 

Those with an eating disorder are likely to exhibit anxiety when it comes to food — they may avoid eating in public or take up calorie counting to an extreme. Also, take note if someone spends a long time in the restroom after a meal, buys detox teas for chronic use, goes to the gym more than necessary or shows signs of rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes.

Though these signs are not necessarily indicative of a disorder, it is worth speaking to the person about it and letting them know that there are effective treatment options available.

"With early intervention, there’s a higher success rate," Brittanie Smith, an outpatient therapist with NHRMC Physician Group, told Star News Online. She noted that an eating disorder often stems from an underlying mental health issue such as anxiety, which is what will be targeted in treatment.

"I do cognitive behavior therapy, which focuses on how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors, and how that would be connected to eating disorder behaviors," she added.