OPINION: This week in my existential crisis: Eating Disorders


Emily Gayton | Society Staff Writer |eg006616@ohio.edu

I distinctly remember my first learning experience about eating disorders in sixth grade. Everything seemed clear, cookie cutter, black and white: anorexia and bulimia. Either you did not eat, or you ate a lot and found a way to get rid of it.

But in the digital age where awareness is just a few clicks away, lots of people think that they have tackled the beast and that most people are aware of the risks of the major eating disorders. However, everything in between including behaviors that are “less extreme” tend to fly under the radar.

This week in my existential crisis: 

Acknowledging Eating Disorders: no matter how diverse

 In high school health classes and dialogue around the world, eating disorders are most often classified into two main categories – if covered at all.

 Anorexia nervosa – characterized by a distorted body image with an unwarranted fear of being overweight. The individual suffering from restrictive anorexia is often perceived as highly self-disciplined. They restrict the quantity of food, calories and often high fat or high sugar foods. They consume far fewer calories than are needed to maintain a healthy weight.  (Eating Disorder Hope).

Bulimia – a psychological and severe life-threatening eating disorder described by the ingestion of an abnormally large amount of food in short time period, followed by an attempt to avoid gaining weight by purging what was consumed, including forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics and extreme or prolonged periods of exercising (Eating Disorder Hope).

It was not until recently that the symptoms for the range of eating disorders made their way into health classes and advocacy pages online, and I was able to identify that I had experienced many of these symptoms.

According to Eating Disorder Hope, symptoms for eating disorders include:

  • Chronic restrictive eating or dieting beyond the norm
  • Rapidly losing weight or being significantly underweight
  • Obsession with calories and fat/sugar content of food and drinks
  • Engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, like cutting food into tiny pieces, hiding food and eating alone
  • Continued fixation with food, recipes or cooking meals for others but refrain from partaking
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Amenorrhea, which is an abnormal absence of menstruation (loss of 3 consecutive cycles)
  • Development of lanugo, which is soft, fine hair that grows on the face and body
  • Loss or thinning of hair
  • Avoidance of social functions, family and friends and may become isolated and withdrawn

We organize eating disorders not just by their causes, but by symptoms (behaviors and thought patterns) because if we base it on the clichés we already know, we fail to recognize that some things that qualify as eating disorders have nothing to do with the models on television. We don’t believe the people that suffer when they are not dangerously losing weight and we think that it all comes down to being thin.

One flaw in our awareness of eating disorders is paying less attention to versions that kill just as often because we don’t have a name for them or a little bow to group them up neatly.

The DSM-5 (the latest tool used by psychologists to ensure a universal understanding of diagnoses) recognizes these as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders or OFSED. Eating disorders found in this list still have some of the symptoms from the list above, but address diversities including things that I thought made me exempt from being diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Things that I thought made me exempt from being diagnosed with an eating disorder:

  1. I still ate.
  2. I was not losing weight. I was consistently at a healthy weight for much of my life and I was still building muscle from sports.
  3. I was not purging in a conventional sense. I did not make myself throw up and I never took diuretics to flush my system in other ways.
  4. I thought my experience was not extreme enough to be classified as an eating disorder. I didn’t struggle during every meal.
  5. My weird relationship with food did not entirely stem from body image issues, but rather an unhealthy desire to control parts of my life.

None of these things made me exempt. They still cause emotional distress and impairment to enough of everyday life. Psychologists recognize this and it is time to make awareness of OFSED a social norm.

If you or a loved one suffer from signs and symptoms of an eating disorder see the resources below.

Resources for Help & Information