During the holiday season, many people make the annual trip to gather with their families and share in a special meal. You may notice that a loved one has developed unusual eating habits since the last time you saw her or him. It’s only natural to want to help, but Maxine Cimperman, registered dietitian at Rogers Memorial Hospital—Oconomowoc, explains that you shouldn’t immediately jump to conclusions. “It’s important to understand that you should not base suspicion that a friend or family member has an eating disorder off of one meal,” she says. “Eating disorders need to be diagnosed by a trained clinician and are based on a prolonged pattern of behaviors.”
That being said, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time for individuals who struggle with an eating disorder. “They will likely struggle with anxiety around the meal, and will often avoid social gatherings around food altogether,” says Jordan Murray, registered dietitian at Rogers’ Oconomowoc location. “Take note if your family member or friend avoids entire food categories, like carbohydrates or fats, or consistently avoids eating in with a group. Individuals with eating disorders may be overly selective of what types of food they will eat.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life, which equals about 1 in 10 Americans. “What’s especially troubling is that the prevalence of eating disorders continues to climb, particularly in adolescents,” says Cimperman.
So how do you find help for someone who may have an eating disorder? “Start by talking to the loved one that you’re concerned about,” says Murray. “Opening the lines of communication gives them an opportunity to ask for help. Open-ended questions are best, as a confrontational approach may lead to defensiveness. Try saying, ‘It seems like you are struggling to enjoy food like you used to, is there anything you want to talk about?’”
Parents can also be on the lookout for possible warning signs of an eating disorder. “They should keep an eye on their child’s exercise pattern, dieting, food avoidance or any dramatic changes in weight,” says Cimperman. “The number one risk factor to developing an eating disorder is dieting. When a parent steps in and tries to help their child by pushing food or monitoring their child’s food intake, it can create a power struggle between the parent and child—which may worsen the problem.”
Murray emphasizes the importance of not stereotyping people with eating disorders. “You cannot make the assumption that someone has disordered eating patterns simply based on their physical appearance,” he says. “Many who eat normally may naturally maintain a low body weight, while someone who struggles with an eating disorder may be at a very normal body weight.”
“Eating disorders occur across all ethnic groups and in males as well, although males may be less likely to seek help for the problem,” adds Cimperman. “Help may also be less available for males as many treatment centers do not work with males, but the residential Eating Disorder Center at Rogers’ Oconomowoc location is one of the few that does.”
Request a free screening for someone who may need professional help for an eating disorder here.