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As EDV receives many requests for answers to students regarding eating disorders, we have compiled the most frequently asked questions and answers below.

Eating disorders
Body image
The role of the media and fashion industries
Health messages
Pro-anorexia/bulimia websites

Eating disorders

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious mental illness, characterised by eating, exercise and body weight or shape becoming an unhealthy preoccupation of someone's life. Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice, a diet gone wrong or a cry for attention. Eating disorders can take many different forms and interfere with a person’s day to day life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognises four eating disorders:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa
  2. Bulimia Nervosa
  3. Binge Eating Disorder
  4. Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders

Who is most at risk of developing an eating disorder?

Eating disorders do not have a single, identifiable cause. There are psychological, biological and social risk factors which may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing, as well as behaviours and traits which can be changed (such as dieting, poor self-esteem, and perfectionism). Eating disorders can occur across all ages, socio-economic groups and genders, but they generally develop during adolescence, and are more common in females.

Do men develop eating disorders?

Yes, research indicates that up to 25% of people experiencing an eating disorder are male, with many experts in the field believing this figure to under-represent the true number. Many men go undiagnosed, either due to their own reluctance to seek help, stigma and a lack of awareness in the community, or because of a lack of understanding from health practitioners. Men are more likely to experience binge eating disorder than other eating disorders, but the prevalence of men with anorexia or bulimia is also increasing.

How common are eating disorders in Australia?

It’s estimated that one million Australians have an eating disorder, and this number is increasing. Statistics indicate that eating disorders are occurring at both younger and older ages, with approximately 15% of women experiencing an eating disorder at some point during their life.

Why are people so concerned about eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious psychological illnesses with significant physical consequences. Left untreated they can have a serious effect on all aspects of a person's life and can be life threatening. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and the risk of premature death from an eating disorder is 6-12 times higher than the general population.

Are there ways to protect against an eating disorder?

It is important to develop a healthy and balanced relationship with food and eating. Try not to label food as "good" or "bad" but refer to as "occasional" or "sometimes" food instead. You can learn to tune into your body signals for hunger and fullness and explore alternatives to food for rewards or soothing emotions. If you have children, try to have family meals together as much as possible, and be aware of your own attitudes and behaviours around food, appearance, weight and dieting. Having a strong sense of self acceptance, self-esteem, and self-worth can also help protect your mental health. Accept that a diversity of body shapes is normal, and appreciate what your body can do, not just how it looks.

It is important to remember that even if parents do everything “right”, it does not mean their child is immune from developing an eating disorder. Parents should not blame themselves, but rather use their strong relationship with their child to help them through the recovery process.

Why do so many teenagers have eating disorders?

Eating disorders can affect people of all age groups and genders but eating disorders do often develop in the adolescent years. Eating disorders can be triggered in teenagers by deeper psychological and social issues. The bombardment of media images to look a certain way can also add to a sense of insecurity, low self esteem and negative body image. Teenagers often have a great deal of pressure on them, such as body changes, study stress, pressure to look a certain way, family conflicts and peer pressure. Key risk factors in developing an eating disorder include low self esteem and dieting, and these are often experienced by teenagers. For some adolescents, an eating disorder can initially develop from a feeling that if they can control their weight or eating they will feel better about themselves. Some however, can take this to the extreme and the eating disorder starts to control their behaviours and becomes an overwhelming force in their lives.

Can you recover from an eating disorder?

Yes! Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Early intervention is key to a successful recovery, so it’s important to seek help as early as possible. The recovery journey is unique for everyone, and for some it can take only a few months, but for others it can take many years. Recovery is often not straightforward, and set-backs can occur. These relapses are a normal part of the recovery process. Read more

Body image

What’s the link between body image and eating disorders?

Body image refers to how a person perceives, thinks and feels about their body and appearance. These thoughts and feelings can be positive, negative, or a combination of both. A person’s body image can change over time, and can be strongly influenced by what a person reads, sees and hears. People’s psychological perceptions of their bodies are not always accurate, and this can affect what they see. For example, some people may believe their body is larger or fatter than it actually is, or become fixated on a particular body part and start to see it as being very unattractive. When people feel dissatisfied about their body, this can affect their behaviour; for example, someone who thinks they are overweight may choose not to exercise in public. Having a negative body image does not cause eating disorders, but it is a risk factor for people who are otherwise susceptible. Read more

Can a negative body image be improved?

Yes, there are number of things you can do to help improve your body image. Becoming media literate, avoiding critiquing other people’s bodies, practicing positive thinking, and being kind and self-compassionate are good places to start. Take the time to look after yourself and spend time doing what makes you happy. Having hobbies, taking time to relax, and engaging in self-care are all extremely important. Rather than setting goals around weight loss, focus your goals on being healthy and happy.

The role of the media and fashion industries

What message do you think the mass media sends concerning appearance and body type?

Our society generally praises and idolizes female celebrities who are thin, and male celebrities who are muscular and well-built. The fashion and advertising industries generally promote the message that these “ideals” result in happiness and success. There have certainly been improvements in recent years with the health at every size (HAES) movement and a greater diversity of models, but there is still a long way to go. Of course, the media does not “cause” eating disorders, but it can contribute to people developing a negative body image when they are constantly bombarded with the pressure to look and act a certain way.

A more body positive approach by the media would include less focus on extremes of weight and diet, as well as greater diversity and acceptance of body shapes.

What is the level of the responsibility of modelling agents/organisations to the general public?

Modelling agencies have the opportunity to take responsibility in portraying a greater diversity of body shape to the community. By using very thin models, they are creating an aspirational “look” which is often unattainable and unhealthy. Modelling agencies also have a duty of care to their employees to ensure that they are healthy.

Health messages

Do you think that the coverage of the "obesity epidemic" in Australia could cause a rise in the number of people with eating disorders?

We have a plethora of public health messages hitting our community on any given day, and the vast majority of these campaigns are well-intentioned and designed to address important health issues. However it becomes complicated to navigate these different messages, and they can sometimes seem contradictory. Recent anti-obesity movements reflect the importance of addressing obesity in the community, however these can also drive panic and trigger disordered eating practices and fad diets.

For parents, a fear of childhood obesity can mean they move from talking to children about nutritious and balanced diets to talk of weight loss, dieting, and labelling foods "good" and "bad". Children (and adults) may also be subjected to weight related bullying as a result of a shaming of people who are overweight or obese. While there isn’t a simple answer, public health campaigns should consider the impact of messages on people who might be at risk of developing an eating disorder, or people who already have an eating disorder, in order to minimise the risk of harm to these groups.

What is orthorexia?

"Orthorexia" is a term that describes an obsession with eating healthy food (from the Greek “ortho” = correct and “orexis”= appetite). A person with orthorexia is fixated with the quality rather than quantity of their food to an excessive degree, far beyond a simple preference and interest in healthy eating. Orthorexia can start with “healthy” or “clean” eating, then progress to the elimination of entire food groups such as dairy or grains, and then to the avoidance of foods such as those with artificial additives, foods treated with pesticides, or particular ingredients (e.g. fat, sugar or salt).

Although orthorexia is not officially recognised in the DSM-V as an eating disorder, it is a serious mental health condition that can cause irreversible health complications. Read more

Pro-anorexia/bulimia websites

What are pro-ana/pro-mia websites?

Some people with eating disorders see pro-ana or pro-mia websites as places where they can find understanding and support for their eating disorder. Connecting with others with a similar experience can provide much needed support, but also can be a source of unhelpful influence that can maintain or exacerbate someone’s illness by promoting strategies, ‘inspiration’, or messages that discourage recovery. Many people with an eating disorder feel very isolated and depressed, and many find it difficult to accept that they require professional treatment. Therefore, they can be very vulnerable to information that encourages them to continue with their eating disorder behaviours rather than seek help.

It’s important to realise that many pro-ana websites are run by people who have personal experience of an eating disorder. Providing support, open dialogue and building protective factors is a better response than criminalisation (banning the website), as people experiencing an eating disorder can often feel very alone.

There are many online communities that have been set up with a recovery focus, such as EDV’s own Recovery Forum.

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