What's the first thing you think of when you see someone, male or female it doesn't matter, who is painfully thin? Or another person who is tremendously overweight? The first thing that usually pops into someone's head is often, "Oh, that person totally has an eating disorder." Many times, this can be the case, however, there are many other times where an issue with eating and/or food is not the underlying cause of the outward result. And that's what we're talking about today.
There are many possible reasons a person can appear to have a problem in this way, but there are several factors to keep in mind.
Is the person struggling with health issues? There are many diseases and illnesses out there that can literally eat away at someone's body. These people eat, but nothing is being absorbed the way it is supposed to be so it eats away what is there...usually muscle. For those that are bigger, cancer treatments can cause a person's body to swell up and, again, there are health issues that can cause a person to retain fluids to the point where they appear to have a food issue.
Is the person dealing with a tremendous amount of stress or anxiety or going through a tough time? Some of us do not always deal with life's bumps well, and don't always reach out when they come up. A person can completely stop eating without even realizing that their body is suffering along with their emotions. Another person may be the opposite in the same situation, and be eating without realizing the amounts consumed. Neither of these situations means an eating disorder is present but more requiring a different way to deal with their emotional struggle.
These points in mind, eating disorders are, sadly, behind many people with weight issues, especially our youth who can be more body-conscious than most. If you are concerned that what is happening does not fall into one of the categories above, by all means, intervene. But do so with caution.
One who is struggling with body image issues does not see themselves as an outside person does. You can shove a greasy burger in an underweight person's hand and yell, 'EAT!' or take that same burger away from an overweight person and say, 'STOP!' but these actions do not get to the root of the problem.
Eating disorders are all about control and power - the power a person feels to refuse to eat, and the powerlessness another feels with not being able to stop eating. And when a person doesn't feel they have any control over what is happening in their life, or to them, food can be that one thing they can exude that helplessness over.
But food isn't the enemy here. In such cases it is treated like a crutch or drug that individuals turn to in order to make things 'feel better'. The ironic thing is that one of the things we absolutely need to sustain ourselves and be healthy, can be the one thing that can kill us.
So, what do we do? How do we help?
From personal experience, the first thing to do is talk to them. It doesn't have to be about your concerns at first, just get the person talking. One thing that often happens is that they can fall into the mindset that no one would care anyway, which isn't true. We help by listening, being there even if you don't say anything, not lecturing and leading by example.
In a lot of cases, we can be our own worst enemy. We internalize, we over analyze, we take things too seriously or too much to heart and we often make things or people crutches rather than standing tall and facing a situation. Like any crutch, food can steer us away from what truly needs to be dealt with. It can give us that quick fix or pick-me-up but the problem is still there, lurking in the background. And abusing food can lead to severe health problems, even death.
I've lost people to eating disorders or health complications stemming from battling an eating disorder. Let's do all what we can to make sure we don't lose anyone else. That we elicit healthier ways to deal with what hurts or consumes. Teach others to embrace who they are, what they're doing and where they're going. Most importantly, we need to teach those who suffer in silence that they will have someone who will fight alongside them.
Just grab the hand reaching out and know you are never alone.