With swimsuit season upon us, it’s easy to let concerns about body image get the best of us. However, there’s a fine line between wanting to look your best and becoming obsessed with your body to the point that it becomes a problem. For millions of Americans, these issues manifest themselves as eating disorders.
Understanding the Problem
Eating disorders can be manifested in several different ways. For example, individuals with anorexia nervosa see themselves as obese — even when they are at a healthy weight or even alarmingly underweight. This may lead them to severely restrict food intake or starve themselves, sometimes to life-threatening extremes.
People with bulimia nervosa have negative body image issues similar to those with anorexia nervosa. The difference is that individuals with bulimia often deal with the problem by binging and purging, meaning they overeat uncontrollably and follow up the bout with forced vomiting, fasting and/or laxative abuse to try to make up for their perceived recklessness.
Then there’s binge-eating disorder, which poses an altogether different kind of threat. With this condition, people tend to lose control of their food intake. People overeat and then are wracked with overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame. These extreme emotional lows lead to eating for comfort, which propels the vicious cycle of overeating.
“Warning signs for this disease are a little trickier and harder to detect because oftentimes these people binge in private,” says Ingrid Barrera, Psy.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “They feel embarrassed and guilty to binge in public, so other than possibly being overweight and having little to no self-control around food, people who suffer from binge eating are, in public, no different from those who overindulge in food.”
In much of the literature, not to mention general societal belief, eating disorders are associated with young, white females. The reality is that eating disorders impact a variety of different populations in different ways — and the LGBT community is no exception.
In fact, research from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) indicates that eating disorders affect the LGBT population in unique ways. Gay men, for example, are more likely to experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives than their straight counterparts. In fact, among all men who report eating disorders, a staggering 42 percent identify as gay.
While the research is less clear, gay women also struggle with eating disorders. Here again, statistics from NEDA indicate that lesbians and bisexual women are twice as likely to binge-eat at least once in a given month. These trends are particularly alarming given the fact that eating disorders are the most lethal of all psychiatric illnesses.
Fortunately, the steps for recovering from an eating disorder, while not easy, are pretty straightforward and effective. It starts with recognizing that you have a problem and seeking professional help. Even if you think you can control the problem on your own, the reality is that eating disorders are illnesses that require treatment for full recovery.
“Seek help right away,” says Dr. Barrera. “Immediate treatment is the best road to recovery. Working with a psychologist — possibly also a psychiatrist — and a nutritionist can make all the difference. Patients should know that it is not their fault, and that they are not alone. There is help, and the best thing is to find immediate support.”