In a time where thin is in and being even thinner makes someone a winner in our society, this is wrong, and it is just absolutely vital that we break down the walls of the pressures to have the “perfect” body. Striving to look like people on tv or in magazines can be cliché but it can also set unrealistic goals for people who can turn something as simple as a “diet” into a lifelong eating disorder. February is National Eating Disorder Month.

Eating disorders are not diets. Eating disorders make someone feel like a prisoner to their thoughts and fears that revolve around food and their bodies. They are like many illnesses, where you can be in remission, but they can rear their ugly heads at any time and unfortunately, can also claim people’s lives. Eating disorders can range from food restriction, binging and purging, excessive over-eating, along with many other food fears, issues and rituals. Eating disorders are a disease that needs proper treatment and should not be taken lightly.

Although there are many types and levels of eating disorders today, we will look at Anorexia nervosa often referred to as anorexia. Many think of people with anorexia as those who don’t eat or won’t eat because they don’t want to, but it is not that simple. According to https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia, “Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss… with difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image. People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.”

Just because you see someone extremely thin, it does not mean they have anorexia. And, if you see someone overweight, it doesn’t mean they can’t have anorexia too. If you know someone who has lost a lot of weight suddenly you may start to question if they are suffering from this disorder. If someone is no longer eating foods they enjoy, skipping meals, avoiding certain foods or coming up with special eating habits you could be even more concerned. Anorexia has many emotional, behavioral and physical characteristics, such as preoccupation with weight, food, calories; comments about still feeling “fat,” even after weight loss, abdominal pain, cold intolerance, lack of energy/excess energy and other issues like constipation. Individuals with anorexia may participate in excessive regimes even when they feel fatigued, injured or sick. They may enjoy cooking or baking but refuse to eat the food they make.

On top of that, persons with anorexia may start to show signs of their body reacting in despair from their disorder such as females who stop menstruating, thyroid issues, anemia, dizziness, fainting, and even lowered immune function. These can be a result of the body trying to conserve the energy that it was because of being so restricted from calories, aka energy. When a body is being denied the calories it needs it will seek energy elsewhere, stealing from organs, starting with your muscles, and maybe even the most important muscle in your whole body – your heart. Anorexics can experience low blood pressure and even risk heart failure and death.

According to the Mayo Clinic our brains consume 1/5 of the calories we consume and at just about 3 pounds you can only imagine what happens to the brain when you starve it. Muscles also can react with spasms and even seizures in the body. Severe and prolonged dehydration can even cause kidney failure. A paper by Papadopoulos studied more than 6,000 individuals with AN over 30 years using Swedish registries. Overall people with Anorexia nervosa had a six-fold increase in mortality compared to the general population. Reasons for death included starvation, substance abuse, and suicide. The authors also found an increased rate of death from ‘natural’ causes, such as cancer.

As a part of Eating Disorder Awareness Month, it’s important to break down the stigma that eating disorders are just diets or phases that someone might go through. It’s a terrible, life-threatening disease that no one wants to have. No body weight or size is worth losing one’s life over. The silver lining is that eating disorders, while not “curable,” have many different means of recovery. The body is perhaps even more resilient compared to the mind and can strengthen and heal while properly re-nourished.

If someone you love is showing signs of anorexia or any disorder related to eating, reach out to them with care and compassion. It is best to approach them in a non-meal time situation. Assure them that you are there for them and willing to help in any way you can. Don’t make it about their weight or how they look, show concern for them as a person. It’s not as easy as “just eating,” again. Don’t assume the role as a therapist but support them to reach out to one or another medical professional. You too may even need some professional support as you walk the journey with your loved one towards recovery. Those with anorexia and eating disorders deserve patience and support as they work towards recovery because they aren’t lifestyles choices, they are serious medical issues. Let’s work together to raise awareness and stop underestimating eating disorders.