A desire to miss meals, obsessing over food and excessive exercise can be just a few of the things that people think about concerning eating disorders.
But contrary to popular opinion, eating disorders are not just about college-age, white women desiring to be skinny. Males and females of all walks of life can experience eating disorders, which are life-threatening and often misunderstood and linked to a person's mental health.
"The fact that our society is letting our young people either die or suffer through this disorder is painful," said Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) organization, who would like to see eating disorder treatments covered by health insurance. "It's like weeds can take over the yard; an eating disorder can take over a life."
Although NEDA is working to spread information and educate people about eating disorders, Grefe finds that many people are not aware that eating disorders can be a person's way of handling an issue or that these disorders affect children and racial and ethnic minorities.
In a 2007 study, Harvard University's Cambridge Health Alliance found that binge eating was pinpointed as a serious health issue for Latino adults, although they did not show the same habits of anorexic or bulimic behavior.
With binge eating, Grefe said, symptoms, other than rapid weight gain, may be difficult to spot if the person purges, because moments of intense eating of a variety of foods happen when the person is alone.
However, all disorders are rooted in a person's mental health, a topic that makes many people uncomfortable.
"There's always a discrepancy between who we are and who we wish we were," said Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, a pediatrician with a focus on eating disorders and medical director of the Laureate Eating Disorder Program in Tulsa, Okla. "The larger that gap, the more problems can fit in there. When the difference is narrow-that's seeing yourself as you are and wanting to be better.
When the gap is wider, Bermudez says, more things are used to fill in that space.
"Eating disorders are serious and real mental illnesses-they're psychiatric disorders-and I think it's hard for people to accept that," he said, noting that the physical component should not be ignored. "Any eating disorder is a state of malnutrition, which means a person can have a wide range of negative medical consequences."
Some long-term problems include: damage to bones, teeth, the esophagus, organs and an imbalance in electrolytes, which can disturb the heart.
This is why both Grefe and Bermudez believe primary care professionals should be aware of signs for eating disorders. By understanding cultural perceptions of extra weight as a sign of health and strength, you can help young minorities navigate through an eating disorder.
"Minority families have the same challenges, but with a twist; that should not be ignored or forgotten," he said, adding that finding balance can be a struggle for many. "All extremes are bad. It's that elusive middle ground where healthy living lies."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org