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Eating Disorders and the One Thing You Need to Know About Them

I thought I'd answer a question that I'm often asked by members of the community: what is one thing people really need to understand about eating disorders?
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As a psychiatrist with more than 30 years of experience treating eating disorders, I look forward to sharing research, insights, commentary and practical advice to help readers recognize, address and overcome these devastating illnesses, which now affect over 10 million women, 1 million men and a growing number of children and adolescents in the United States.

There are myriad eating disorder topics to address over the coming months, and it's nearly impossible to organize them in order of importance, because each topic in itself is critically important to understand. So for my first post, I thought I'd answer a question that I'm often asked by members of the community, and that I hope will provide some necessary context to emphasize the importance of my subsequent blog entries: What is one thing people really need to understand about eating disorders?

While there are many vital issues individuals should acknowledge about eating disorders, my answer is generally as follows: Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, and therefore it's incredibly important for physicians, therapists, patients, families and friends to take these diseases very, very seriously.

Despite rising eating disorder awareness among the general population and healthcare professionals alike, the illnesses aren't known for their severity or for the high mortality rate associated with them, which is higher than any other mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight. It's the most lethal eating disorder, with 0.5 percent of patients dying every year and a mortality rate of 20 percent within 20 years, meaning that one in five people that have had anorexia for two decades will die as a result of the illness.

Even for patients whose eating disorders don't prove fatal, there are often severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging. In addition to the generally debilitating psychological implications of an eating disorder, the disease will eventually take a toll on a person's physical health, resulting in bone disease, cardiac complications, gastrointestinal distress and various other organ problems.

While eating disorders are devastating to individuals and families and boast the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, there is good news to share. First and foremost, it's important to note that full recovery is possible with effective treatment. The community has amassed a wealth of educational resources detailing what potentially causes eating disorders and the telltale warning signs to look for, how to help someone with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or other disordered eating behaviors and strategies for seeking help for eating disorders.

The other piece of good news about eating disorders? The women, men and children suffering from an eating disorder are generally wonderful people with a horrible illness. They're often the best and the brightest, come from good families that care deeply about their own well-being and, on the surface, look like they have everything in the world going for them. That said, seeking help for eating disorders and committing wholeheartedly to recovery really opens the door for individuals to thrive and experience happy, successful futures.

Of course, there are so many more things I want you to understand about eating disorders, so be sure to join me here to learn more about eating disorders, treatment and recovery, and to discuss these issues.

Please feel free to comment below with other eating disorders topics you'd like me to discuss on this blog.