THE BLOG
02/24/2014 04:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Get in the Know

"I Had No Idea" is the theme of the 27th annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is Feb. 23 -- March 1. Ask anyone. Most people suffering from eating disorders are young, wealthy, Caucasian women. And you can't be too rich or too thin, right? Wrong.

We expect to see eating disorders diagnosed among young girls and raging rampant in Hollywood and the advertising and fashion industries. As 2008's reigning Miss America, I am the stereotype. I did battle anorexia and, today, am thankful to be fully recovered.

But America is a melting pot like no other country and New York City, where I live, like no other city. And the truth is that eating disorders look much like our population, affecting every socio-economic demographic -- young/old, female/male, wealthy/poor, heterosexual/gay, Christian/Jewish, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and, yes, Caucasian. The rate of occurrence is also particularly high among college students, athletes and gay men. There may be challenges that are unique to each demographic -- men and African-American women are less inclined to seek help, for example -- but bottom line is that an eating disorder is a life-threatening illness no matter who you are.

Nationally, more than 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Four out of 10 Americans have either suffered or have known someone who has suffered from an eating disorder. [1]

I had no idea... that you can be too thin... that over-exercising can lead to an eating disorder... that 35 percent of "normal" dieters progress to pathological dieting and that, of those, 20-25 percent progress to full-blown eating disorders [2]... that an eating disorder can kill you or lead to permanent physical damage... that (I, my daughter, son, sister, brother, friend) had a problem.

Eating disorders happen behind closed doors. Signs are frequently overlooked (particularly among minorities), even by medical professionals... until the damage is undeniable. And even today there is often a reluctance to seek help, fearing that others might consider the disorder self-imposed. An eating disorder is a bio-psycho-social illness, not a lifestyle choice. We wouldn't judge someone with cancer or diabetes. Yet someone suffering from an eating disorder is sometimes criticized or dismissed.

But not much is going to change until we start a dialogue... until we love ourselves and strive to be healthy, not to achieve "ideal," unrealistic body images... until bullying is no longer a problem on our school campuses. As many as 65 percent of eating disorder sufferers cite the effects of size and weight bullying as the root of where their struggle began.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, research and program outcomes show that education and outreach lead to more people recognizing the problem and seeking help. Get the conversation started now in your family, your schools and your community.

Let's all come together to model acceptance and celebration of diversity in body shapes and sizes. And if you are concerned for yourself, a friend or family member, you can take a free, anonymous online screening for eating disorders at MyBodyScreening.org. And find more information at MyNeda.org.

I had no idea... that freedom from an eating disorder was possible. But I am living proof.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

For more information about NEDAwareness Week or how you can get involved: www.NEDAwareness.org

References:

[1] Wade, T. D., Keski-Rahkonen A., & Hudson J. (2011).Epidemiology of eating disorders. In M. Tsuang and M. Tohen (Eds.), Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology (3rd ed.) (pp. 343-360). New York: Wiley.

[2] Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3): 209-219.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.