How to Fight Stigma and Help People with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are more than anorexia and bulimia. Risky behaviors like restrictive diets and excessive exercise can lead to serious health problems. These behaviors are common but often unnoticed, causing underdiagnosis.

How to Fight Stigma and Help People with Eating Disorders
Teenager looking in mirror with a concerned expression.

Eating disorders (ED) like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder represent just the visible tip of a much larger issue. Many individuals engage in risky behaviors such as fasting, restrictive diets, vomiting, and excessive exercise to lose weight, even if they do not meet the clinical criteria for a full-fledged eating disorder.

This insight is provided by Karla Edith González Alcántara, an academic from the Division of Graduate Studies and Research of the UNAM Faculty of Psychology. She emphasizes that these behaviors are precursors to the development of eating disorders and are associated with serious physical and psychological consequences. Low self-esteem, high levels of anxiety, and depression are common among those who engage in these risky actions.

The actual prevalence of eating disorders is likely underestimated, as many people do not seek treatment. This results in a discrepancy between the visible cases and the true extent of the problem at both national and global levels. The reluctance to seek help means that many suffer in silence, exacerbating their physical and mental health issues.

On the occasion of the World Day of Action for Eating Disorders, commemorated on June 2, Dr. González Alcántara highlighted the three primary eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Young women are the most vulnerable, although men are also affected, albeit to a lesser extent. For every ten individuals with an eating disorder, approximately nine are women and one is a man.

Children and adolescents are also at risk of developing eating disorders. It is crucial to address these issues early, as poor nutrition can significantly impact their physical development. The consequences of eating disorders range from fatigue, skin issues, anemia, and osteoporosis to more severe issues like lanugo (fine hair growth due to prolonged starvation) and even heart attacks.

Dr. González Alcántara explains that anorexia nervosa involves a severe restriction of food intake, resulting in significant weight loss and a distorted body image. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge-eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives and diuretics. Binge-eating disorder involves consuming large quantities of food without subsequent compensatory behaviors, often leading to overweight and obesity.

Statistics and Prevalence

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) 2013, the prevalence of anorexia nervosa among women is 0.4%, while bulimia nervosa affects 1.5%, and binge-eating disorder is seen in 3% of the population. Data from Mexico's Ministry of Health in 2017 indicated 20,000 new cases of eating disorders annually. Globally, a 2019 study estimated that 13.6 million people had experienced an eating disorder.

The article “Prevalence of risky eating behaviors in Mexican adolescents: Ensanut Continua 2022,” authored by researchers from the National Institute of Public Health, the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, and the National Institute of Psychiatry “Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz,” reveals that 1.6% of Mexican adolescents are at high risk for eating disorders, with a higher prevalence among females (2%) compared to males (1.2%).

From the 2022 National Health and Nutrition Survey, 45.7% of adolescents reported overeating at least once in the past three months, 35% were worried about gaining weight, and 23.4% felt a loss of control over their eating. Additionally, 11.5% exercised excessively to lose weight, 14.2% engaged in dieting, and 1% used pills, diuretics, or laxatives.

The risk of eating disorders is higher among adolescents in urban areas (2.1%) compared to those in metropolitan areas (1.8%). Despite efforts to reduce and prevent these disorders through information campaigns and treatments, the prevalence continues to rise.

One of the challenges in addressing eating disorders is the high rate of relapse, partly due to the stigma surrounding mental health. Dr. González Alcántara stresses the importance of raising awareness about the need for treatment for mental health issues. Just as we visit a doctor for physical ailments, it is crucial to seek psychological help for mental health problems.

Parents are encouraged to monitor their children's eating habits and look for signs of compensatory behaviors. Treating eating disorders requires a multidisciplinary approach involving psychologists, nutritionists, and medical doctors to ensure comprehensive care and improved health outcomes for patients.

By understanding the scope and impact of eating disorders, we can better support those affected and work towards reducing the stigma associated with these serious mental health conditions.